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.
Palafox visits local high schools every week to encourage young
people to prepare for college. Photo:
"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.
"Its the best thing Ive ever done," says Palafox,
a language studies major who will graduate in June. "Id been
getting good recognition and earning lots of money--I bought a new car,
had nice clothes, went to Hawaii--but I still wasnt 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
"I tell young people to ask for help--theres 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. "Im dead serious,
but of course Im 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 masters 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 Chancellors 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 isnt contaminated
by English. Theres 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. "Ive earned
it. I dont take this for granted. Im seizing the opportunity."
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