East Los Angeles, with its graffiti-lined streets cluttered with cars in its high afternoon sun, known to be dangerous at nightfall, created a rough environment growing up for liberal studies major Edith Ramirez.
But from a young age, Edith’s single mother and aunt pushed her and her cousins to get out of the harsh streets and in to college.
“Since we were little we were told ‘go to college,'” Edith, 24, said. “It wasn’t an option for me, it was something I had to do.”
This is not the expectation for most lower-income families whose main priority is to get a job and have a family, according to Edith.
“For other families it’s just ‘find a job, raise a family, have a kid at 17.’ Mainly it’s just ‘get money,’” she said.
Not only was encouragement essential to Edith and her cousins’ success, but also their protectiveness.
“They were like ‘it’s 7, you shouldn’t be out late’ and so we’d go inside,” Edith said. “They watched who our friends were. We couldn’t go and sleep over at anybody’s house. They would say ‘you guys have to keep looking up. You’re not living in this environment forever.’”
Edith’s family was so protective because her childhood environment in East Los Angeles was rough.
“We both grew up in a low-income community,” said Edith’s cousin Bracy Martinez, 24. “It wasn’t an easy growing up situation.”
Their neighborhood also had lots of gang and drug problems but their moms were not willing to let their children become a part of that group. Instead they made the decision to put the girls in a high school away from their home so they would not be followed or get into trouble with surrounding people.
“We took the bus an hour to Hollywood High,” Bracy said. “It was a better location. No one knew where we lived that way. They didn’t want us to encounter the same people we live around as the same people at school so if we had problems at school they wouldn’t make problems at home.”
Edith’s mom and aunt arranged for the girls to go to private school by fundraising. The school also offered a discounted tuition to them.
“My mom used to do all these fundraiser events and dances,” Bracy said. “The fundraisers raised a lot of money for the school so the school would give us discounts. Our tuition per month was like 25 percent (of the regular tuition rate).”
After high school, Edith went to Santa Monica Community College for four years to work on her general education and then transferred to SF State for two years to finish her major in liberal studies.
Part of the struggle for Edith was balancing a demanding work and school schedule.
“There were times at Santa Monica Community College I had two jobs. I had to work,” Edith said. “You have to be a full time student to get financial aid so I was a full time student and worked full time.”
Out of the four cousins Edith closely grew up with, two went onto college, including Bracy, who graduated from Cal State Los Angeles.
“We always had choices,” Bracy said. “That’s what we were taught. You had two different paths — you got educated and you could afford certain things or you didn’t get a degree and you live your life on a day-to-day basis.”
Edith’s cousin Susan Arguello, 30, did not see the path for college as easily as her younger sisters did. She said it was difficult to go to college with little financial support.
“My parents separated and it was hard for me to get college funds from them at all,” Susan said. “I did get into a medical assistant program. It would have been nice to have all of us graduate from a university. That’s why we’re so proud of (Edith) and her mom is so proud of her.”
Not only does her family have high esteem for Edith, but so does her close friend and roommate, SF State student Julio Cortez, 21.
“I’ve known her since spring ’09 and she was my roommate in Parkmerced,” Julio said. “She’s been like a bigger sister. It was nice to have her as a role model.”
Julio and Edith came from similar backgrounds which brought them closer.
“She’s coming from a similar situation as me — first person in our family in college and single moms.”
Julio also said that Edith is a dedicated person.
“She’s really passionate about what she does in the Mission helping troubled families,” Julio said.
Not only is she someone Julio can look up to, but be close friends with, even though she has a demanding schedule.
“She’s my buddy for everything — concerts, homework, she’s able to do all this fun stuff with me even though she has work at 4 a.m. and her computer broke before finals and she’ll go to the computer lab at 6 a.m.,” Julio said.
After graduation Edith plans to spend time with her mom and take a break from schooling.
“I want to rekindle the relationship with my mom,” Edith said.
As far as what she plans on doing professionally after college, she said she is unsure, but she knows she wants to impact someone’s life.
“I want to give back to the community and maybe be a mentor,” Edith said. “I want to let them know they don’t just have to graduate high school.”
Her motivation became clear when she overheard a conversation on the bus.
“I was waiting for the 22 last week and I overheard this woman saying ‘I’m so excited my child graduated sixth grade. I just want them to graduate high school,’” Edith said. “I wanted to say ‘there’s more than just graduating high school.’”