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bjbjLULU GWEN IFILL: Now, another in our series on the nation's high school dropout crisis
-- tonight: one man's journey from gang member and dropout to professor and his efforts to
keep other young men from making his mistakes. Ray Suarez has our American Graduate story.
VICTOR RIOS, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara: My
name is Victor Rios. In 1994, this was me. I was introduced to the nation in a "Frontline"
documentary. I was a gang member, a juvenile delinquent, and a high school dropout. RAY
SUAREZ: But in the 18 years that followed, Victor Rios earned his high school diploma,
finished college, earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and
wrote two books on his life and his research on juvenile delinquency. He now teaches sociology
at U.C. Santa Barbara and helps at-risk youth navigate the perils of adolescence. Rios is
also a family man with a wife, Rebecca, and three children. Life is constantly busy. VICTOR
RIOS: To be this far into this future, I feel like I have lived two lifetimes. RAY SUAREZ:
Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. with his mother at the age of 2, and was raised on
the rough streets of Oakland. His mother found menial work, and the family barely scraped
by, living in some of the city's most notorious projects. VICTOR RIOS: So, we ended up in
some of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, and we had to face some of the violence, poverty,
dilapidated housing. For example, one day, my little cousin, he was sleeping in his crib,
and we had rats. So, big rats crawled on his crib and began to chew his face up, his lips,
his gums, his cheeks. He was hospitalized for months, and his face had to be reconstructed.
And so this is the kind of dire poverty we lived in. RAY SUAREZ: That dire poverty led
Rios to drop out for the first time in eighth grade. He secretly mowed lawns to help his
mother pay the bills, but she found out and made him return to class. Not long after,
at 14, Rios joined a neighborhood gang for protection from the violence of the streets
around him. Gang life, coupled with bad relationships with teachers and other authority figures,
eventually led him to drop out of school again. VICTOR RIOS: The gang was influencing my thoughts
about school, because our whole day was organized around, number one, surviving. And school
didn't provide us the resources to survive. RAY SUAREZ: Life on the streets became increasingly
dangerous. Rios left home and was stealing cars, sometimes living in them for months
at a time. And when he was 15, his best friend, a fellow gang member they called Smiley, was
murdered during a fight with their rivals. VICTOR RIOS: Smiley's death changed my life
around, in that I began to reflect. I began to think about what can happen to me. I began
to think about facing hard time in prison if I continued on this path, like many of
my friends, or ending up dead like Smiley. RAY SUAREZ: Rios says it was at this crucial
moment, the point when he was ready to make a change in life, that one adult was there
for him. It was a teacher. Her name was Ms. Russ. VICTOR RIOS: She walks up to me. She
says, "Victor, are you OK? I heard what happened." And I told her, "Yeah, I'm okay." But she
didn't believe me. She tapped me on the shoulder. She said, "I know you aren t okay." And I
began to cry like a little kid in front of the whole school. The teacher reached out,
opened her arms, gave me a hug and said, "Victor, when you are ready to change your life around,
I will be here for you, but you have to do the work." RAY SUAREZ: With the help of mentors,
Rios says he began making a slow transformation. But the lure of the street life was still
there, haunting him on a daily basis. VICTOR RIOS: One day, I'm on the other side of town,
and I pick a fight on the street in front of a school, a rival school. And a police
officer came by and stopped us, handcuffed me. I was on probation, and he knew this.
He got me in the back of the car. And he said, "I could arrest you and you could go to jail
for a long time." I told him, "Officer, I'm trying to change my life around." He started
talking to me. He said, "Listen, kid, I'm going to give you one more chance. But if
I see you around here again, I'm going to take you in for a long time." I respected
my deal with him. RAY SUAREZ: It was that deal that helped get him on the path to a
high school diploma, then to college and eventually a doctorate. VICTOR RIOS: I don't think they
realize today how important their second chance for me was. At the time, it was important
for me to hear an adult tell me, listen, we know you are a mess-up, we know you have been
to juvie, we know you are caught up on the streets, we know you are a dropout, but we
still believe in you. And they gave me that dignity, and I ran with it, and I'm still
running. RAY SUAREZ: Even now, Rios is navigating between two worlds on most days. He juggles
his duties as a college professor and high school researcher, all the while studying
and mentoring at-risk young men in Santa Barbara. MIGUEL, 19: My name is Miguel. I am 19 years
old. I was born and raised in Santa Barbara. And I have been labeled as a gang member down
here. If I hadn't met Dr. Rios, I think -- I honestly think I would have probably been
in jail by now. RAY SUAREZ: Miguel asked us not to use his last name. He first met Professor
Rios about two years ago, when he took part in a sociology study. MIGUEL: I felt like
I can relate to him, like so he knew what we were about, you know, and he knows where
we come from. He knows how to come at us, you know, at what level of respect to come
at us. RAY SUAREZ: Miguel's two older brothers were in gangs. He had his first interaction
with the juvenile justice system at the age of 12, after he stole a bike. Miguel never
really liked going to class, and eventually left school for good without a high school
diploma. Now that he's joined Rios' program, though, Miguel now aims to complete his GED
and hopes to one day become a mechanic. VICTOR RIOS: I have seen Miguel grow over the last
couple years. I ve seen him become a leader in the community. RAY SUAREZ: Miguel knows
he's still a work in progress. MIGUEL: I mean, it's not -- I'm not going to go to sleep the
devil one night and wake up the next day and have wings. I mean, everyone has got room
for change for the better, you know? And I'm still young, so I got a lot of room for changing.
RAY SUAREZ: And he's encouraging others to do the same. Miguel is now helping his friend
Hector, a 15 year-old sophomore, avoid the mistakes he made. HECTOR GUTIERREZ, 15: He's
had my back. I ve had his back. He's, like, helped me out a lot. He encourages me, tells
me to stay in school, and just get it over with. It will help me out in the future. I
trust him. RAY SUAREZ: It's a pay-it-forward strategy that Victor Rios, the gang-member-turned-university-professor,
still can't believe he put in motion. VICTOR RIOS: If, during the time I was on the street
as a teenager, someone approached me, an angel came to me and said, hey, hang in there, man,
because, when you re 34, you are going to have a beautiful family, a wonderful household,
a great job, you are going to be a Ph.D. from Berkeley, you re going to have written two
books, and you will be an award-winning professor, I would have laughed and laughed. So now it's
my job to let them know that it's not a joke, to let them know that I believe in them the
way that my teacher believed in me, to let them know that there are second chances. RAY
SUAREZ: Rios is now working on a book that s examining the achievement gap at Santa Barbara
High School. GWEN IFILL: Our next story profiles a photographer who documents the reality of
life for dropouts caught up in the juvenile justice system. American Graduate is a public
media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags
PlaceType urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags PlaceName urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags
country-region urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags City urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags
place GWEN IFILL: Now, another in our series on the nation's high school dropout crisis
-- tonight: one man's journey from gang member and dropout to professor and his efforts to
keep other young men from making his mistakes Normal Microsoft Office Word GWEN IFILL: Now,
another in our series on the nation's high school dropout crisis -- tonight: one man's
journey from gang member and dropout to professor and his efforts to keep other young men from
making his mistakes Title Microsoft Office Word Document MSWordDoc Word.Document.8
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Gang Member-Turned-Ph.D. Mentors Youth on the Fringes

439 Folder Collection
Bo Liang published on March 14, 2016
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