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Eric Esparza '22 Eric Esparza '22 / Photo Credit: CJ Poloka / Cal Alumni Association

Against the Odds

Eric Esparza is an Achievement Award Program (TAAP) Scholar in UC Berkeley’s Class of 2022. Below are his reflections on his journey to UC Berkeley.

May 4, 2022

My journey to Cal was unique, not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of the multitude of obstacles that I had to overcome. As a freshman, I had no intentions of graduating high school or doing something good with my education. I was involved with the wrong group of friends and doing things that I shouldn’t have been doing. Eventually, I completely shifted my path as I recognized the harsh struggles that my parents went through to come to the United States from Mexico to give my brother and me a better life. I enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program since it allowed me to grow as a student and prepare for the rigorous coursework I would face in college. I never had any intentions of graduating with the IB diploma since it required me to take six to seven IB courses during my junior and senior years, along with passing all of my IB exams. But in the end, I was one of the few students to obtain the IB diploma and was the first Latino at my high school to do so. 

Eric Esparza at his high school graduation
Eric Esparza at his high school graduation. / Courtesy of Eric Esparza

After graduating from high school, I was registered to be an incoming freshman at UC Riverside, which was my dream school at the time. UC Berkeley wasn’t my dream school because I never thought that someone with my background would ever have a chance of getting into Cal. Before I was going to leave San Jose and move to Riverside, an unfortunate situation came up that left my brother in a condition where he would need assistance while he recovered. Since my father and my other brother work full time, and my mother needed someone to care for her as well, the only person who would be able to take care of them both was me. After a lot of thinking, I announced to my family that I would stay home to take care of them. My mother didn’t want to believe it because she knew that UC Riverside was my dream school but she was also glad to hear that her baby wasn’t going to leave home for four years. And so I began my undergraduate journey at De Anza College in Cupertino, California which I was looking forward to because this was my second chance to show universities my potential. 

Now, my two years at community college were rough because I was taking care of my mother and brother, and I had to manage and figure out a lot of things on my own. I did have the distinct opportunity to re-activate M.E.Ch.A (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) with my classmates. We wanted to create a safe space for the Chicano and Latino community at our college campus for all of us to thrive and succeed together.

When it came time to apply to transfer to a four-year university, I was in a somewhat more comfortable place because I had a high-grade point average and believed that I finally had a shot at getting accepted into some “prestigious” universities. I applied to San Jose State University, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly SLO, and of course, UC Berkeley. I was expecting a bundle of acceptances, rejections, and some wait listings. To my surprise, I got into all of the schools I applied to. When I learned about my acceptance to UC Berkeley, I fell to the ground, got up, and began crying as I yelled “I got into Berkeley! I got into Berkeley!” And so, I decided to transfer over to UC Berkeley because of its phenomenal pre-law resources and opportunities. 

As a third-year transfer student from a community college who knew that becoming a deputy district attorney was a dream goal, I was looking for the right organization to join that would support me on my journey while allowing me to celebrate and recognize my identity as a first-generation Mexican-American college student. I joined one organization that from the outside, appeared to be the perfect club I was looking for. I even ended up joining the organization as a board officer. As time progressed, I realized that there was no real sense of community within the organization and always felt uncomfortable. And so, I finally decided to resign. 

I realized that if you can’t find what you’re looking for, if you can’t find your community, then you must create it yourself and so, that’s what I did. A month later, I created my organization, Latinos in Law at Berkeley. 

At this moment, we currently have over 30 registered members. We have hosted four law school admissions officers panels, one of which was a Latinx law school admissions officers panel; one Latinx graduate student panel; one Loteria game night; and have offered an abundance of resources to our community. I’ve received great feedback from not just our members but from people outside of Berkeley thanking me for the great work I have done for the Latino pre-law community. I even inspired a student at Berkeley to begin developing a Latino-affiliated organization within their major department. 

I am proud to have created this organization because I am helping people like myself move one step closer to making our dreams come true. In my case, I get to see that becoming a deputy district attorney is no longer a fantasy but rather a reality. I get to move forward with my community, with mi gente, and that’s what’s so meaningful to me. 

Eric Esparza in front of the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Law and Society
Eric Esparza (center) in front of the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Law and Society. / Courtesy of Eric Esparza

Now don’t get me wrong, starting a new organization, even if it’s an organization at an undergraduate institution, takes a lot of work, a lot of great leadership, a lot of teamwork, and open-mindedness. You’re going to experience failures in executing your action plan and criticism from people who don’t see the value in your work. How did I deal with the obstacles before me? I overcame it by being open-minded. I had to learn that mistakes will be made and that’s okay. It’s not about how many mistakes you have made, but about how many times you get up and how you converted that into a learning experience and are now using that to strive forward. You also have to be open-minded to the different viewpoints people have. I’m not talking about politics and religious beliefs necessarily, but rather the different perceptions that people have as to how we should be serving and representing Nuestra Comunidad. So how has the Alumni Scholars Program played any part in all of this? 

Well, the Alumni Scholars Program itself gave me much more than just the financial assistance that I so desperately needed. It gave me the environment to feel welcomed, appreciated, acknowledged, but more importantly, accepted. I felt like a complete outsider as a new student and believed that I was only accepted to Cal because the university was trying to become a Hispanic serving institution. But when I attended our welcoming event and saw the diversity in the students that were a part of this program, I already began to loosen up and feel more comfortable. It became a community where I could become vulnerable. It was soon that I realized how important it was to have a community that you could rely on for support, a community where you could just be you and no one would judge you or penalize you for being yourself. I can confidently say that the Alumni Scholars Program ignited my motivation to create Latinos In Law at Berkeley because it opened my eyes to the importance of having the right community. 

How did I deal with the obstacles before me? I overcame it by being open-minded.

Eric Esparza ’22

This year, I had the privilege of acting as the finance chair this year for the Alumni Scholars Board. What have I gained from it? Well, for one thing, I have felt more connected with my fellow peers. I got to learn more about the amazing and talented people that are a part of the Alumni Scholars Program. I got exposed to a group that was not just diverse in appearance or background, but in ideas as well. I carried this with me as I developed Latinos In Law at Berkeley because, to make a community that was different from the one I was initially involved in, I had to ensure that our board members, who would be the face of the organization, could freely express their thoughts on how we should be assisting our Latino/a Comunidad. 

Myrtha, Yoyo, Enrique, Fritzie, the entire Alumni Scholars Program staff, and anyone we have interacted with at one of our events has been so welcoming, so down to earth, so honest, and so genuine that it made me even more eager to be involved in the program as a finance chair and make my own organization just as great as the Alumni Scholars Program. 

I honor my community by beginning to work on making Latinos in Law a non-profit organization aiming to assist all Latino folks interested in going to law school and becoming an attorney by providing them with access to an abundance of resources, such as networking opportunities, panels, discussion events, and fundraising opportunities to help provide counsel to indigent defendants from our community. I want to thank my donor, Mary Tuncer because you took a risk and invested in my success. You invested in someone you hadn’t met and now, your investment is going to bring a lot of merits back to UC Berkeley and my community and that is all thanks to you. I also want to thank my family for the continued support they have given me. To my mom who stayed up until 3 a.m. with me as I finished my papers, and to my dad who worked in any sort of weather conditions to support our family. 

Eric Esparza
Eric Esparza ’22 / CJ Poloka / Cal Alumni Association

But I also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the people that have come before me that fought to allow students like me to even be here giving a speech at UC Berkeley and have the ability to work my way into law school to become a deputy district attorney. I want to acknowledge Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Dolores Huerta for their hard work in representing our community and helping us show the richness that exists within us to the rest of the world. I also would like to acknowledge all of the immigrants who had to undergo unbearable experiences to make it into the United States to work for a better life. But I also want to acknowledge all of the immigrants who didn’t make it into the United States for a better life. To those who lost their lives in their journey and didn’t get the chance to live their dream in America. 

I stand here today, as the son of Mexican immigrant parents from Guadalajara, Jalisco, able to say that I am not only graduating from the world’s number public university but that I am graduating with departmental honors in legal studies. I am graduating with a high-grade point average. I will be enrolling in law school in the fall of 2023. And I am going to become the best deputy district attorney there is. 

I want to leave you with a quick message. If you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next in your life, just remember that this community we have right here will be here to support you because that’s what a Comunidad does. 

Thank you again for everything. I’ll cherish this moment for the rest of my life and will do so by always saying “Go Bears!” Thank you.

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.