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A letter to youth: How I achieved the impossible dream of a master’s degree

Sergio Coronel attending his master's degree graduation ceremony / Courtesy of Sergio Coronel
WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Sergio Coronel

In 2016, I finally made it to California State University, Fresno. It took resilience, commitment, patience, and not giving up to make it there.

I couldn’t believe I was at a university. I always felt dumb and struggled in school. Where I come from, college seemed like an impossible dream. The only dream my friends and I had was of a future as a gang member in a juvenile or prison facility. I did not believe in myself and could not dream of a life away from gangs and violence. 

Whenever I walked to class at Fresno State, I would think about everyone I grew up with. I thought about the violence my friends experienced at home, the hunger they had to endure, and the trauma of the streets and juvenile halls. 

I double majored in history and criminology. I knew the double major would be a challenge, but I had already experienced worse things on the streets. 

I needed to work hard in the classroom because my first language was Spanish, and I was homeschooled until I was eighteen. I also had trauma lingering from the streets and juvenile system.

Even after my arrival at Fresno State, the residue of the gang was still there. The streets were tempting, and I often wanted to get involved. To avoid falling back into gang life, I surrounded myself with my family and individuals not involved in committing criminal activities for the gang. The change in me did not happen overnight but over many years of making mistakes and working on them.

The reality is that change in youth impacted by gangs is a process that takes time and is not something that happens right away. I did not know then, but education was pivotal in removing myself from gangs. It allowed me to embrace a new identity as a college student. 

In 2018, I accomplished what I thought was impossible as a youngster, and graduated with two bachelor’s degrees.

At my ceremony, I could not believe that a youth labeled a gang member and expelled twice from school was now graduating from a university. In my neighborhood, the only place we were expected to graduate from was a juvenile facility and into the prison system.

I never thought about continuing into a post-graduate program until some of my professors encouraged me to keep going. The doubts and lack of belief in myself always came back. I had to tell myself I could do it. Even though I doubted myself, I applied and was accepted. 

In 2023, I graduated with a master’s degree in criminology. The impossible dream came true.

During my college years, I returned to my neighborhood, to the street I grew up on, and parked outside the house where all my homeboys would hang out.

I sat in the car reminiscing about what we had gone through and thought about the lack of resources, mentors, and programs we needed in the varrio. I am now a youth advocate and gang consultant to criminal justice agencies, attorneys, and organizations that work with young people impacted by the juvenile system, dispelling misconceptions about youth and sharing the best methods for approaching at-future youth. (I came up with this term to replace the problematic label of “at-risk” youth.)

I want to tell all the youth out there who have been put down, labeled, stereotyped, ostracized, who feel like giving up, and who come from a similar background as me, to ignore the negative comments and pursue your dreams no matter how hard life gets.

I was told I would not complete a high school diploma and would die in the streets. I am now telling all you youngsters that anything is possible. 

If I can do it, so can you.

Sergio Coronel is the Co-Founder of the Organization YoungSTers for Change, where he runs a credible messenger mentorship program for at-future youth in the Central Valley. He is also a Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JJCC) member at the Fresno Juvenile Justice Campus.


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