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Becoming One’s Best Self

Danny Muñoz ’22 is an Achievement Award Program (TAAP) Scholar in UC Berkeley’s Class of 2022. Below is an excerpt from his speech delivered at this fall’s Academic Achievement Program Recognition Celebration.

December 20, 2022
Danny Muñoz ’22 Danny Muñoz ’22 / CJ Poloka

I was a good kid. While in elementary school, I did very well. I did my best to impress my family, especially my Nana, a single woman who raised me and my older brother. You see, my mom and dad were heroin addicts and I don’t have any memories of them being together—maybe a picture or two. I do remember visiting my dad on some days, playing poker for pennies and I have some pictures with him at the park. I also remember my mom getting her stuff together long enough to be able to take care of me and my brother.  It wasn’t very long before I saw the effects of drug use and violence return to the family dynamic that she tried to make for us with my stepdad. I remember standing in line for government cheese and at soup kitchens in West Oakland for holiday meals. I do remember some good times with my stepdad—fishing at Lake Chabot and trying to catch lizards and snakes. But I also remember him kicking my pregnant mother in her stomach when he found out she had cheated on him and the baby she was carrying wasn’t his. After that, my brother and I went back to live with my Nana in San Leandro for good.

Muñoz, as an infant.
Muñoz as an infant. / Courtesy of Danny Muñoz

I have learned that my traumas within my family dynamic contributed to the way I would spend the next 3+ decades of my life. I saw my first jail cell at age 14. My father, who had moved to Mexico, got his life together and remarried with two more kids, came to California to attend my 18 year old cousin’s funeral. He offered to take me back to Mexico with him to get me out of the neighborhood. I was 15. Within two months of moving to Mexico, he passed away in a drunk driving accident. I still feel guilt about not preventing him from driving off that night. 

I came back to California and by 16, I was arrested on two felony counts, strong armed robbery and attempted armed robbery, and was facing long term out of state incarceration. Fortunately, after a couple of months I was released to the custody of my father’s first child, my half-sister who is five years older than me and lived in Tracy at the time with her first husband. I guess they thought that if I relocated, I might do better. Wishful thinking. I found the low-income, Latino gang community there and was right back to it. Only this time my sister wasn’t the type to put up with my BS. One morning, after I had snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to go party, my sister’s husband woke me up early and told me “get your shit, I’m taking you back to your grandmother.”

I came home and became a full blown gang member and drug addict. I dropped out of high school, another part of the cycle that I felt I was destined to live. I spent significant amounts of time in different county jails and took plea deals that otherwise would have sent me to the penitentiary. This went on for another 20 years or so and in February 2016, one week after my sixth child was born, I was shot point blank five times in a gang-related shooting. As I saw blood squirting from both sides of my neck and felt a breathtaking pain in my chest, I truly thought I was about to die. I dropped to my knees and asked God to guide me forward before I slumped over and passed out. 

“I am here on a bonus life, in a bonus level that many children never even imagine reaching. I want to give them the secret code. I want to widen the path for them and make it easier to navigate. I want to remove the gates and the keepers of those gates. I want to see children with options and resources—paths out of the cycles they are born into.”

Danny Muñoz ’22
Muñoz pictured with his daughter.
Muñoz with his daughter. / Courtesy of Danny Muñoz

I was newly married at the time and eventually she took my son and left me. I lost everything. I became suicidal, homicidal, and, for about a year and a half, I was right back to square one. Fortunately, I remembered my Nana and the values she instilled in me. Remember when I said that I was a good kid? I was. It has always been there. Compassion. Empathy. Love. But I had become a product of my environment. And what I learned out there, through the adversity. Strength. Respect. Perseverance has all shaped who I am today.

In September 2017, I got clean and made the decision to enroll in Chabot Community College as a Sociology major beginning in spring of 2018. By spring 2020, I had held officer positions in various clubs, student mentorship and tutoring jobs, and I graduated with highest honors and with 3 AA degrees. I also gave the keynote address at the commencement ceremony and was accepted to all 8 universities I applied to, before accepting the admission to UC Berkeley.

I found a community at Cal that embraced me, the Berkeley Underground Scholars, a campus community dedicated to formerly incarcerated and system impacted students. They have been instrumental in my preparation for, transition to, and success at UC Berkeley. It is a place where students like me can feel accepted and unjudged by our appearance or our past. When I entered Cal in Summer 2020, I hit the ground running. Underground Scholars members and leadership helped to steer me towards other groups like NavCal, a course which supports underrepresented students in gaining social capital at UC Berkeley. That’s where I learned about the Cal Alumni Association and its prestigious scholarships.

I am now a proud Alumni Scholar; winning TAAP my incoming year and the Leadership Award for the past 3 years. I have taken part time jobs in the community, working with incarcerated youth to set goals and complete college coursework towards attaining AA degrees as we work on navigating their re-entry. I am a sociology major, but I began a public policy minor when I got here and I have learned that what I wanted to do, help the youth one by one in my community who are facing similar struggles to what I have, is just part of my journey. Through public policy work, I can effect change for thousands of children at once. This fall, I began the application process for grad school for the master’s of public policy programs at various schools. My hope is to one day create policies that better the situation of marginalized youth of color and the disparities they face in education and within their communities.

Muñoz delivering his speech at Alumni House
Muñoz delivering his speech at Alumni House. / CJ Poloka

It was almost game over for me. I am here on a bonus life, in a bonus level that many children never even imagine reaching. I want to give them the secret code. I want to widen the path for them and make it easier to navigate. I want to remove the gates and the keepers of those gates. I want to see children with options and resources—paths out of the cycles they are born into. Before they become addicted to drugs. Before they are incarcerated. Before they are shot. Before they are killed. Before it is too late. Before it is game over for them. So that they can become their best selves.

Today, at 46 years old, I am lucky to finally become my best self. Thank you for being a part of my journey.

Alumni: Learn how you can support The Achievement Award Program.

Students: If you would like to apply for The Achievement Award Program, visit the Cal Alumni Association Application Portal. Open only to prospective first years and junior transfers.

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