Grad School Confidential

Succeeding in academia without prior experience

By Gustavo Arellano
Published on LatinoLA: January 3, 2002

Grad School Confidential

As I walked down the staircase connecting Parking Structure #5 to the main UCLA campus for the first time, I realized I had made it.

Four grueling years of full-time work and school had resulted in my joining the 4% of Latinos constituting the graduate student community. I , the son of a former illegal immigrant and a mother who had to drop out of school at 9th grade to pick strawberries, was about to begin at one of the most prestigious research universities in the nation with a full scholarship, a hefty stipend, and the not-guaranteed parking permit.

And yet it didn't hit me until I reached the bottom of the well-worn stairs how truly special this moment was.

A bit of background: I am a graduate of Anaheim High School, class of 1997, from which about 15 students out of my senior class of over 300 attended college and few teachers ever gave a damn. I nearly became a product of the school? administrative apathy; never bothering with homework and spending class time reading the sports section, I graduated with a cumulative GPA of 2.93.

College was not on my mind upon graduation. Who could blame me? Aside from an uncaring school, my family initially did not encourage my educational success. None of my aunts and uncles had even attended high school, let alone graduate; how could I expect my family's assistance in deciphering the FASFA?

To them, school was a hindrance to making money and starting one's life. When I finally decided to enroll in a community college, my father was so upset that he accused me of trying to ruin my family by not seeking a full-time job to help pay house bills. But my undergraduate experience transformed my family and me.

I attended Orange Coast College, transferred to Chapman University, and graduated this past May with a GPA of 3.89--all while never working less than 32 hours a week. In February, I got word of my acceptance to UCLA's graduate program in Latin American Studies.

They did not even bother with the prerequisite statement acknowledging the delivery of my application, instead sending the congratulatory letter that my father proudly mentioned to anyone within earshot for months.

Upon this background and with a mixture of excitement and anxiety I started my UCLA journey. I was entering a discipline that I plan to devote my brain to but with no academic background in it.

In addition, a relaxing commute from Anaheim to Westwood via the 91-to-605-to-105-to-405, exit Sunset Blvd., four days a week, would jangle my nerves. But I told myself that the stress would be worth it since I would succeed, become a role model for others, and make my family and loved ones proud. It hasn't been easy.

This past quarter, I had to read about 400 pages every week for my classes and was expected not only to smelt the material but also to forge it into a smart sword from which to fight other analytical giants with. This is no simple task for someone whose major undergraduate concern was Billy Wilder's shot selections, not the role of phenotypical differences in racial construction.

At the same time, I still had to meet journalism deadlines and find interesting stories. Switching from the droll writing of academia to alternative journalism's goofy musings is not easy and after a couple of failed attempts in both mediums many of my friends suggested I should reconsider my priorities, drop out of graduate school, and pursue journalism full-time.

Yet I persisted in my studies. I fell back upon the scholastic, monastic lifestyle that allowed me to succeed at Chapman and drew upon my journalism craft to offer unique perspectives on subjects that had been debated to a grinding bore in the academy long ago. My advisors (both in journalism and at UCLA) proved to be valuable resources in letting me vent and formulate my interests.

Most importantly, I loved my situation, reveling in the fact I was being paid to study rather than working full-time as I had for the past five years and still manage to piss people off in nearly weekly pieces.

Then one chilly Christmas Eve, I finally received the grades I had been waiting on: two A's in classes I was sure I had failed.

Coming about one week after my first radio interview (on KPFK? "Morning Show"), I was ecstatic. I am the first in my family and community of immigrants to attend graduate school and am succeeding with no map.

Because of me, my entire family understands the importance of education and my younger cousins are lining up, one by one, relishing the thought of college.

I should be proud; I know my parents are.

About Gustavo Arellano:
Gustavo Arellano is a graduate student at UCLA and a contributing writer to OC Weekly. He can be reached at

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