Martha Kanter, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, listens intently as UC Irvine deans, vice chancellors and directors involved with admissions and financial aid talk about how the campus makes itself accessible to underrepresented minorities and first-generation university students – and how it can do even better.
To her right sits another staffer from Washington, D.C., nodding almost imperceptibly as the conversation covers the importance of faculty mentors, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, cultural diversity interest groups, the Blue + Gold Opportunity Plan and more.
“It was all I could do to keep from jumping up and saying, ‘Yes, yes!’” Robert Gomez later admits. Kanter’s staff escort during her recent visit to California is an Anteater – class of 2007 – and was an eager participant in all UC Irvine had to offer him as a first-generation college student from Pico Rivera.
“If I had just gone to class and not taken advantage of undergraduate research opportunities, faculty mentoring and student activities such as the Latino Business Student Association, I would not have been as successful in my academic career,” he says. “I’ve never been comfortable just doing the basics.”
Gomez and his twin brother are the oldest children of immigrants who worked in Los Angeles’ garment industry. There was – and is – no shortage of ambition in the household. His mother loves learning and still tears up when she recalls having to quit school in Mexico after sixth grade to help support her family.
His father, also with only a sixth-grade education, worked his way up to manager of one garment business and then started a successful company of his own. Gomez’s brother graduated from UC Santa Barbara and now runs the family business with his dad. His younger sister is attending college; and his youngest sister, a high school sophomore, hopes to do the same.
Gomez, 29, has moved the farthest from home. In Washington, D.C., he’s the higher education & youth liaison in the U.S. Department of Education’s communications & outreach office. He says his parents are still not sure exactly what he does.
“But when I was able to arrange for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to speak in Pico Rivera, I think they got an idea,” Gomez says.
He’s responsible for communicating President Barack Obama’s educational agenda and the education department’s priorities to constituents and then soliciting and evaluating feedback. He consults with think tanks, advocacy agencies and youth organizations. Most recently, Gomez has been working with youth advocacy groups that were founded around healthcare issues and have now adopted other policy platforms, including higher education.
He was offered his job at the conclusion of a UCDC internship with the Department of Education in 2007. The program offers students of all majors a chance to work and study in the nation’s capital.
Gomez says he never would have applied without a nudge from Caesar Sereseres, associate professor of political science, after completing the Summer Academic Enrichment Program, an intensive, five-week, on-campus residential experience for first-generation university students.
“I was ready to graduate in 2006, and then he told me to take a fifth year and go to Washington, D.C.,” Gomez says.
Others in the School of Social Sciences advised him as well: Ramon Munoz, academic counselor; Jeanett Castellanos, director of the Social Sciences Academic Resource Center; and Juan Lara (now retired), who served as assistant vice chancellor of enrollment services and director of the Center for Educational Partnerships.
Gomez’s internship with the Department of Education came about, in part, because of the research he conducted with help from another faculty mentor – the adviser on his UROP project. “I worked with Leticia Oseguera [now at Pennsylvania State University] on the barriers to Latino students going from high school straight to four-year colleges,” he says.
He also had a part-time job at Centennial Education Center, a division of Santa Ana College’s School of Continuing Education. Gomez saw how students looking for a second chance and hard-working immigrants, like his parents, reaching for the American dream were inspired by new learning opportunities. “And that’s how I really became interested in education,” he says.
While Gomez is making his way in the nation’s capital, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He returns as often as possible to visit both his nuclear family and his Anteater clan.
“They looked after me,” he says of his campus support team. “I’ve kept in close touch. I come back as much as I can for the rejuvenation and sense of pride I have in coming from UC Irvine.”