Eduardo Figueroa never even thought about college until Lighthouse. Now he’s studying law at UC Hastings -A guest post from Families in Action
Eduardo Figueroa, wearing the traditional black cap and gown, hears his name called and strides across the stage in the hot Butte County air to pick up his diploma from Chico State. He pauses for a moment and raises his fist.
“I have that moment ingrained in my mind,” Figueroa says now, looking back. “It was one of the greatest feelings.”
College graduation day in 2015 was a huge moment for Figueroa: the culmination of a lot of hard work, attaining a goal he didn’t think was even a possibility for him just a few years earlier. That is, before he went to Lighthouse Community Charter High in East Oakland.
“It was a big accomplishment,” Figueroa says, thinking back to graduation day. “My family didn’t even think I was going to go to college. It was a proud moment.”
Figueroa is now a first-year student at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
How does a young person go from not thinking about college at all at age 15 to being on track for a law degree a decade later? A lot of hard work, a lot of good decisions and a huge assist from the staff and students of his charter public high school.
The access to a quality school where everyone is focused on college was a life-changer for Figueroa. Before his charter public school, he was lost in the shuffle at a large OUSD high school with no support system. Once he gained that support, he took off.
How many students are like Figueroa, and just need that access? What would happen to students like Figueroa if access to charter public schools was taken away?
“Lighthouse is much smaller and you get to meet your teachers and they care for you,” he says about transitioning to the new school during the end of his junior year. “Not that OUSD teachers didn’t, but at Lighthouse they check on you and let you know they want you to succeed in whatever you do.”
He says he knew right away he was in the right place. “They made me feel like I was worth doing something with my life, especially from the principal, Mr Sexton,” Figueroa says. “I would see him in the hallway and he’d ask me if I was doing all right or, ‘You need to get going and working on this.’ It was like, OK, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It was empowering.”
Still, college? The thought seemed pretty far-fetched to him. “I had no idea, I didn’t know what community college was, or what colleges were out there. I didn’t look into going to college or anything like that,” he says. “I didn’t know and no one mentioned it to me — family, friends — no one. It didn’t even cross my radar once.”
That all changed when he got to Lighthouse. “Once I was there, I was surrounded by other students who wanted to go to college,” he says. “A different environment makes you think differently.”
He chose Chico State because it was a fresh start in a new place. That, and they offered him the largest financial aid package. He had never been to Chico before, and culture shock was inevitable. He got to know his hallmates and started to meet other “like-minded individuals.”
“Other people who wanted to do something with themselves in life, people who were going after internships and who wanted to have a career,” Figueroa says. “I realized how I had to get out of the little bubble I was in pre-Lighthouse.”
After graduating with a degree in criminal justice and a paralegal certificate, Figueroa returned to Oakland. He worked at the Oakland Law Collaborative, on immigration and labor and employment, which he’s particularly interested in. He plans on starting his law career in the Bay Area. “I grew up here and this is what I want to do, help the kids out,” he says. “Help people like me who didn’t get a second chance.”
Law school is really challenging, a “right of passage” he calls it.
“You maybe feel like you don’t belong there because you don’t see as many people that look like you or come from your background” he says. “I have a good support system, though. It still can be scary because I’m the first one in my family to graduate from high school, not to mention go to law school.”
Figueroa says he returns to speak to Lighthouse students whenever he’s asked. This past December, he spoke before the OUSD board during Lighthouse’s charter renewal hearing. He said the experience was “empowering” and was grateful for the opportunity to share his story.
”I had never got an opportunity to speak with leaders like that,” he says. “I let out frustration, told them when I was in (OUSD) schools, no one ever mentioned college to me, or what you’re going to do after graduation. I told them that thanks to Lighthouse, I was given an opportunity.”