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Juan Valdez

Juan Valdez Statue FrontJuan Valdez Statue BackJuan Valdez

When Juan Valdez first arrived in the U.S. from Mexico City, he rented a room in a house near the Continuing Education Center (CEC) of Santa Ana College. One of his roommates told him, “You are an intelligent young man. You should apply for ESL classes at the college nearby.” The roommate advised Juan that enrolling at the college would be a good way for him to meet people, and encouraged him to arrive early for enrollment.

The next morning, Juan was at the front door of the CEC at 5 a.m., three hours before the doors opened. Though the line behind him swelled to nearly 100 students, Juan was the first student to be enrolled for the fall semester of 1997. “Ever since I started as a student at the CEC, I have been on an incredible educational journey,” he jubilantly explains.

Juan held down two jobs while he was in the CEC program. He washed dishes at an Italian restaurant and delivered newspapers in the early morning hours, generally from 1:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. “I just had enough time to get from one job to the other, then have breakfast and a little rest before my 8:00 a.m. class at Centennial,” he observes.

The CEC high school program does not rely on lectures, but is driven by a student’s capacity, desire and potential. According to Juan, a student could complete five credits in one week or, conversely, one month. “I tell students who complain to me that they are the ultimate interpreter of the learning experience,” says Juan.

“I liked how my ESL program used small cartoons and real life scenarios,” he continues. “I enjoyed reading, speaking and writing English. We learned by describing emergencies, illnesses, needs and important holidays. I was excited every time I had to go shopping or eating, because I knew I could practice the lessons in my books.”

In addition to his English as a Second Language studies, Juan took all of the computer courses that were available: Basic Macintosh, Introduction to the Internet, Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Within two years, he had learned English, become computer literate, passed the high school proficiency exam and transferred to Santa Ana College. He majored in business, but in his last semester took a class in anthropology that changed his life forever.

“I liked working with fossils,” he explains, “and with measurements inside the body. I studied the skulls of Neanderthals, and the progression through apes, gibbons and other primates. To me the textbooks were exciting, and I spent my spare time in the labs. Working as a volunteer with gibbons in Santa Clarita, I fed them, gave them medicine, interacted with them. I did not want to leave.”

Juan matriculated to Cal State Fullerton, where he majored in anthropology. He has now been accepted for the Master’s program at CSUF in the Anthropology Department, in which he hopes to complete this coursework within a year. He is now looking into Ph.D. programs in anthropology.

“Evolutionary anthropology may be my focus,” Juan says. “I want to look at trends in diseases, such as the trend of Latinos to develop diabetes, and see what we can do to counter these trends. The CEC program at Santa Ana College opened doors to a whole new world for me, and I will be forever grateful.”