Omar Ramirez ’06 hadn’t thought he would attend college—much less graduate from UC Berkeley and remain on campus as a full-time staff member for the next 12 years. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Lynwood, California, in a family of immigrants with mixed citizenship statuses, Omar was more familiar with interviewing for minimum-wage jobs at fast food restaurants than applying to colleges. In fact, he didn’t make plans to go to college until the summer after his senior year of high school, when he figured, “Maybe I’ll give community college a shot.”
At community college, Omar joined the Puente Program, a program designed to support first-generation students of color through college with English language courses, professional development mentorship, and higher education academic planning. “The program built a sense of trust for me,” Omar recalls. “Trusting the program, the people, and the system.”
The encouraging, supportive environment of the Puente Program ultimately led Omar to apply to transfer to a four-year institution. He applied to schools all across California in the Cal State and UC systems—including UC Berkeley, which he ultimately decided to attend because of its generous financial aid package.
Omar received financial support not only through the university’s official financial aid system, but also through scholarships—including the Cal Alumni Association’s The Achievement Award Program (TAAP). “Knowing I was getting [the TAAP] scholarship, at least for the first semester, or even the first year, meant I didn’t have to work,” Omar explains. Rather than split his time between a part-time job and academics, Omar was then able to put his full effort into his studies and acclimating to the UC Berkeley campus.
TAAP was a critical part of his introduction to Cal.
“One of the first friendly faces I interacted with [at] UC Berkeley was the person who interviewed me for the TAAP scholarship,” Omar remembers. “The interview was really intimidating because it was at this building in Downtown LA, and it was the first time I’d done an interview that wasn’t for a minimum-wage job. But the interviewer made me feel really comfortable from the get-go and allowed me to share a lot about myself.”
When Omar met the rest of his TAAP cohort and the full-time program staff at Berkeley, he was met with an entire community of people like his interviewer. As a transfer student, he didn’t have the same amount of or access to resources as incoming freshmen, but the TAAP program provided him with a community that connected him with the resources he needed and provided him a space where he felt recognized and heard.
TAAP was a healing space where Omar and his peers felt their identities weren’t being assaulted, where they felt comfortable sharing their stories. “TAAP created a safe space for me to feel at peace with my identity,” Omar shares.
“Cal holds a lot of different values. One of the values I try to live up to every day is this sense of growth…I know that tomorrow, there is space for me to continue
He similarly searched for this feeling of belonging in the classes he took for his English major. “A lot of the authors that we read [in my K-12 English classes] were dead, white men. They didn’t look like me, didn’t have the story that I did,” he explains. “The message that I got was ‘My stories aren’t valued, my stories aren’t important.’” At Cal, he intentionally took classes about “subalternate authors” whose work mirrored aspects of his own story.
Omar pursues his goal of recognizing and uplifting students’ stories through his work as an academic advisor in UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, and he credits TAAP’s culture with leading him down this path. Many of his peers in his TAAP cohort similarly found ways to give back. “Having a culture that’s passionate about giving back continued to fuel my own interests of giving back through student services.”
For Omar, shifting his part-time student job to a full-time position on campus was only natural, and he’s never left Cal since. “Cal and TAAP created a place for me to grow,” he admits, “and I didn’t feel like I was done growing after getting my degree.”
As someone who has seen Berkeley from several perspectives now, Omar still fosters a deep love for the university and how it has shaped who he is today. “Cal holds a lot of different values. One of the values I try to live up to every day is this sense of growth. I am constantly in that state of growth,” he shares. “What that means sometimes is being self-reflective, self-critical. Maybe today I didn’t do everything correctly, but I know that tomorrow there is space for me to continue growing.”
Posted on September 16, 2019 - 8:00am