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May 12, 2003

Graduating senior inspires youth to pursue dreams of university education

By Jennifer McNulty

Gerardo Palafox gave up a lot to go to college. The founder of a successful 16-member theater company, Palafox was living the good life in Los Angeles when he realized he wanted more from life.

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the outstanding educational opportunities and achievements of UCSC students and graduates.

Gerardo Palafox visits local high schools every week to encourage young people to prepare for college. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

"I wanted to be a role model for my family," said Palafox, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 17. "I wanted to be able to impart knowledge to the next generation. I wanted a solid foundation for the future. I wanted a university education."

So Palafox finished up his community college classes, applied to the University of California, and arrived at UC Santa Cruz in January 2002.

"It’s the best thing I’ve ever done," says Palafox, a language studies major who will graduate in June. "I’d been getting good recognition and earning lots of money--I bought a new car, had nice clothes, went to Hawaii--but I still wasn’t happy. I came to UCSC and started from scratch."

It was the second new beginning for Palafox, who arrived in Los Angeles with his brother and mother in 1990 without knowing a word of English. Sitting in a high school classroom unable to understand what was going on around him was a nightmare, and after three agonizing days, Palafox approached his teachers and asked for help. He moved to a seat in the front of each classroom, and six months later he was proficient in English. He had become an active participant in his education--and he has been ever since.

"I tell young people to ask for help--there’s plenty of help at every level, including at the university," said Palafox, who visits local high schools every week to encourage young people to prepare for college. "I always tell them that once they arrive, the university takes care of you. People here want you to excel," he says. "I feel very well taken care of."

As an academic outreach intern for the UCSC Educational Partnership Center, Palafox, now 30, is a perfect ambassador for the university. Hearing his story, Spanish-speaking youth take his words of encouragement seriously. And his background in professional theater helps him reach young people, too. "The first minute, they dismiss me, but I get their attention," he says with a smile. "I’m dead serious, but of course I’m very entertaining, too."

Palafox brought the focus and concentration of a performer to UCSC, where he has taken a heavy course load every quarter. As a language studies student, Palafox has improved his native Spanish and learned Japanese. Now, less than 18 months after his arrival in Santa Cruz, Palafox is about to begin graduate school to earn a teaching credential and a master’s degree in education from UCSC. His goal is to help "narrow the gap between English-speaking teachers and Spanish-speaking kids like me."

This year, as a participant in the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Internship Program, Palafox has revitalized the community service program at Oakes College. Each quarter, he arranges placements for up to 20 undergraduate interns who volunteer time with schools, nonprofits, and community agencies around Santa Cruz County. Under his leadership, Palafox has seen interest in the program jump from two students in September to more than he can accommodate this spring. "I talked to students, faculty, and staff, and I distributed flyers and made presentations in classes and handed out my business card," said Palafox, who shrugs off the accomplishment.

At graduation, Palafox has asked Spanish lecturers Veronica Feliu and Marta Navarro to accompany him as he receives his diploma. They are, he says, among his strongest advocates. "Just listening to them talk, I feel at home," he says.

"Their Spanish is so clear and perfect. It isn’t contaminated by English. There’s an expression we have in Spanish: me echan mis porras--they are like my cheerleaders."

And as he accepts his diploma, what will he be thinking?

"I wanted to show I could do it--that I could go to an American university and get a degree," says Palafox. "I’ve earned it. I don’t take this for granted. I’m seizing the opportunity."

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