"What's your dream job?" UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter asked a group of at-risk youth from Carson, Compton, and Watts Saturday morning.
"RN," "dentist," and "lawyer" were the three replies heard from the crowd.
"Do you feel like you can get there?" Professor Reiter asked.
A faint "no" comes from the audience.
On April 18th, The Gang Diversion teams (GDT) of Carson and Century sheriff stations held their third annual "Pave Your Own Path" event at UC Irvine for high school students who have been exposed to gangs, drugs, and violence. The program consists of motivational talks from professors, outreach directors, and adults who've succeeded after being at-risk in their youth. Alissa Subsarn, one of the event's organizers, says GDT works with these students to fight drug usage, offer help with schoolwork and counseling, and expose them to an environment they normally don't see in their neighborhood (which is why the event is held at UC Irvine).
Professor Reiter, who teaches criminology and law, was the first speaker of the day. "I'm an example of the education system working, but a lot of the time it doesn't," she said. "I didn't struggle that much in school, but we need people in our education system who have and can communicate those challenges with students. You guys would be way more inspiring than me."
Professor Reiter's advice rang true when speakers David Arellano (a rapper from Carson) and Robert Andrade (a fourth-year student at UC Irvine) came up to speak. Arellano came from a similar background as the students. In high school, he got involved with people who were in gangs and one day, after being caught in the middle of a gang fight, he was arrested. An aspiring rapper, Arellano realized he would no longer be able to write any rap lyrics in jail, and that drove him to turn his life around and go to college while pursuing music when he got out.
"When you leave the UC Irvine campus today, I want you to challenge yourself to make a few changes within yourself," Arellano told the students. "How many of you are going to college?"
Less than half of the students raise their hands.
"Your hands should all be up," Arellano remarked.
Similarly to Arellano, Andrade also was arrested in high school, but for stealing $800 worth of merchandise. "When I was getting cuffed, the cop threw me to the ground and applied excessive force," Andrade explained. "Luckily, I had teachers who taught me the importance of knowing my rights." When Andrade brought up the police officer's use of excessive force, Andrade was charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony. This moment inspired him to go to college and study law. "If I can do something after reaching one of the lowest points of my life," he said to the students, "then what can you do?"
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Deputy Frederick Noya of Carson's sheriff's station gave the last remarks. "We do not want you in our jails," he said. "If you come to the jail, you're going to make changes for the worse: some are going to get rehabilitated -- some, very few. I'm being very honest about that," he said. "There are a lot of kids in this room and I want to them to change. I know we've had some run-ins. But I do this because I care about your future."
"Deputy Noya inspires me, and Alissa Subsarn inspires me," said sophomore Jerrica Mitchell from Carson (a.k.a. the one who replied she wanted to become a dentist). "I came here because I wanted to see what a college campus was like," she said. Jerrica's dream is to attend UCLA.