Finding the power of family at home and in the classroom

Sonia Gonzalez—a participant of UnidosUS’s Escalera and Líderes Avanzando programs—credits her East LA upbringing and her family’s perseverance and compassion for guiding her path to college and beyond

At center: Sonia Gonzalez and; UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía pose with guests at our 2017 Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. <em>Photo: Sonia Gonzalez</em>
Sonia Gonzalez Photo: Sonia Gonzalez

By Jennifer Wennig for UnidosUS

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor has said, “Remember that no one succeeds alone. Never walk alone in your future paths.” This is a sentiment that captures the experiences of another strong Latina named Sonia.

Growing up in East LA, Sonia Gonzalez was determined to pursue higher education as early as in elementary school. Planning to go to college was not an “option” but a “requirement” in Sonia’s mind.

It was an ambition rooted in the lessons given by her family, who have provided lifelong examples of perseverance and service.

“My grandmother never lets me forget about how she was not given the same opportunity to reach a higher level of education,” Sonia says. “She pushed the importance of school on me and my siblings and encouraged us to never turn down an opportunity that will help take you higher in life.”

Sonia dedicated herself to being a strong college candidate and eagerly applied to the UnidosUS college-readiness program, Escalera, when it was introduced to her by a counselor at Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno.

“I am the type of person who likes to be prepared for things and thankfully I had the Escalera case workers who were or are currently in college.”

Sonia says the program provided her with the help she needed to research colleges and majors that interested her, and identify financial aid options.

Escalera: Taking Steps to Success promotes economic mobility for youth by supporting students as they prepare for college, explore career paths, and develop leadership and technology skills.

Escalera | Lideres Avanzando | UnidosUS | Latino Youth leadership | Latino youth leaders
Sonia Gonzalez and; UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía and guests at our 2017 Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Sonia Gonzalez

According to Sonia, being part of Escalera gave her the confidence that she was on the right path to landing on a college campus. “The case workers knew exactly what I needed to get accepted to any college I wanted to go to,” says Sonia.

Escalera also gave Sonia the opportunity to meet other high school students preparing for college and take field trips to area colleges. She says the more she became involved with the program, the more the people began to feel like a second family. “Escalera guided me and a few of my classmates, and I continue to see how the program positively impacts the lives of other students,” she says.

Today, Sonia is a sophomore nursing student at Cal State LA. After graduating from Escalera, Sonia was asked to join Líderes Avanzando, another UnidosUS program. Having had such a rewarding experience with Escalera, Sonia said “yes, on the spot,” to joining Avanzando.

Líderes Avanzando helps young Latinos—many of them the first in their families to go to college—understand the higher education system and graduate with a degree in less than six years.

Family Life Rooted in Compassion

Although she hasn’t decided if she’ll become a midwife, neonatal nurse, or work with Veterans Affairs, Sonia’s path to becoming a professional care provider seemed almost inevitable. The youngest of six children, Sonia has seen family members struggle with serious health issues. She  played an integral role in caring for her father when he was battling cancer while she was in high school (happily, her father is now healthy).

In addition to her inclination to be hands-on in caring for her father, Sonia was strongly influenced by the unwavering compassion demonstrated by her grandparents who were ever-present in her life.

“While growing up with my grandparents, I’d see them always helping and looking after other people in our neighborhood,” she says. From accompanying her grandmother to care for an elderly neighbor to learning about her grandfather befriending, sharing food with, and giving shelter to a homeless man, Sonia has experienced the value in looking after others.

“My grandparents taught me to never stop helping and aiding other people and they are honestly the number-one reason why I want to become a nurse,” says Sonia.

Ongoing Support from UnidosUS

Reflecting on her initial expectations of Escalera, Sonia says, “To be honest, when I first joined the program, I expected it to be just like other college-readiness programs in that once I had moved onto college, I’d be on my own. But this program showed me that it’s not like any other.”

With her father sick during her senior year at Woodrow Wilson, Sonia looked forward to her afterschool Escalera meetings and activities.

“I enjoyed our meetings so much because I got the help and support I needed to get into college, created close connections with other UnidosUs members, and found that escape that I needed to help me focus on what was important for my future,” she says.

For Sonia, moving from Escalera to Líderes Avanzando reinforced many of the lessons she learned from her grandparents. “The more I have participated in the Líderes Avanzando program, the more I have realized that the program goes beyond just helping students in school, but also focuses on educating the youth to be aware of what is happening in their community and to figure out ways to make a difference.”

Participating in Líderes Avanzando, Sonia has been learning how to be financially responsible, staying organized, and maintaining a healthy college lifestyle. Maybe most importantly, Sonia says the relationships she has through the program are a constant source of support, encouragement, and guidance.

“Never forget where you come from and what made you who you are or want to become,” Sonia says when asked to offer advice to other students.

Even though the streets of East LA can be tough, Sonia credits the challenges for making her street smart. And she says the authentic food, murals, and music in the neighborhood enrich the community and made her closer to her family’s roots. “The murals tell a story… of our Mexican heritage and the loving family members that make us proud of who we are.”

What’s next for Sonia? She wants to graduate with her nursing degree and secure a position serving underserved communities. It’s a nod to Justice Sotomayor’s advice to “never walk alone in your future paths.” And it is surely making her family proud.


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