Education opens a door to an unexpected path
Pedro Borges. (Photo provided by student.)

Education opens a door to an unexpected path

Pedro Borges left school twice to work, once after primary school in Brazil and once during high school in the U.S. He graduates from UCLA with a B.A. and an M.A., having been encouraged by numerous teachers along the way.

UCLA International Institute, June 7, 2021 — “Not in a million years would I have ever imagined where I am now,” says Pedro Borges, a first-generation college student who has earned a B.A. in sociology (2020) and an M.A. in Latin American studies (2021) at UCLA.

During his three short years on campus, the Brazilian immigrant and transfer student became a McNair Scholar, conducted a major ethnographic study, became a Departmental Scholar at the UCLA International Institute and discovered his calling as a sociologist.

“I was told by many teachers and school directors in Brazil that I wouldn't graduate from anything and would probably end up in a manual low-wage job like picking up the trash,” he remarks.

Choosing work over school

Raised in Brazil in a working-class family, Pedro dropped out of school in sixth grade to work as a secretary alongside his grandfather in a law firm. When his family immigrated to the Bay Area several years later, he landed in Sequoia High School (Redwood City) as a sophomore.

“It was total, insane culture shock,” Pedro shares. “I had zero English — all I could say was ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘where’s the bathroom?’” Placed in an English l anguage learners’ program, he became close to his Mexican, El Salvadoran and Guatemalan fellow immigrants.

“I actually learned Spanish before English — we really built a community because of those ESL (English as a Second Language) classes,” he says. “I assimilated first into the Latino-Central American community. It took me much longer to assimilate into American culture, especially to speak English.”

Pedro found himself curious about what his non-immigrant peers were studying. “I’d walk by their classes and see things on the board, such as complex math equations and history and economics subjects. And I’d think, ‘That’s very interesting, but I can’t understand it.’”

So he focused on learning English, but only for about eight months. “I had this amazing teacher, Mrs. Wenzel, an American woman who had a tremendous passion for ESL and brought in volunteers every day to help English learners speed up their learning process.”

By junior year, he had a full-time job in construction and ended up completing high school via an online program for which he did the bare minimum. After three years in construction, he went on to a series of jobs as a waiter, barrista, pizza maker, sandwich person and office worker.

A brush with the law and a court case that lasted two traumatic years (and five public defenders) marked a turning point in his life. With an eye toward proving his good character to the court, he asked his high school ESL teacher for a letter of reference. “When I went to meet her, she gave me a motivational speech and told me I should go to college,” he relates.

A visit to Brazil to see his family there deepened his resolve. When he returned, he enrolled in Cañada College in the Bay Area with the help of a high school friend.

College sets intellectual curiosity afire

Pedro dove into his classes, reading widely in political theory, sociology, history and political science. Multiple professors encouraged him, counseled him on courses to take and regularly gave him books to read, which they discussed during office hours. (He arrived at UCLA with his own considerable library.)

A sociology professor, Robert Lee, recognized his bent for the discipline and pointed Pedro toward the honors program, a four-year UC degree and a social sciences research scholarship.

The transition to college, although exhilarating, was not easy. Reading advanced texts in English was slow going and Pedro learned to study by observing other students.

“I’d see students using markers to highlight text, writing notes on the margins of their books, using sticky notes — and I started doing the same thing,” he says. “And as I started engaging with the texts, that's when I said, ‘Damn, this is interesting!’”

After finishing his A.A. degree and being accepted to UCLA and UC Berkeley, Pedro chose UCLA. During a visit to his ESL high school teacher, he shared his story with her current immigrant students.

“I told them, ‘No matter where you are, there's always a path to go forward, there's always a way for you to break the cycle of poverty.’ It was amazing to see them in shock, thinking, ‘This person was really sitting here where I am now.’”

The gifted student’s intellectual journey has continued apace at UCLA. In lieu of quizzes, he submitted a 24-page research paper to Professor Stefan Timmermans in his Death, Suicide and Trauma course — three weeks into the quarter.

Timmerans wrote and told him that he had a talent for research, counseling him to consider graduate school and to find a research position on campus. “I took my phone out and took a screenshot of that email,” said Pedro. “I had only learned to write an essay two years before!”

An internet search led the new Bruin to discover the McNair Research Scholars Program at UCLA, a two-year program that prepares first-generation undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds for graduate school.

Academic Advancement Program Learning Pavillion, UCLA Campbell Hall. (Photo: AAP.) With only weeks to apply during his very first quarter at UCLA, he managed to prepare a complete application packet for the program and secure the agreement of Rubén Hernández-León, his professor in another sociology course, to become his McNair mentor.

“It was like the ocean divided for me when he agreed to be my mentor,” remarks Pedro. “Rubén is not just a mentor, he’s a person that I look up to. He's the educator whom I hope one day to be.”

Accepted into the McNair Scholars program, Pedro has worked closely with Hernández-León on his research ever since. The program, and the Center for Academic Advancement Program (AAP) where it is housed, became a second home for Pedro on campus.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Pedro Borges throughout his B.A. in sociology and M.A. in Latin American Studies,” says the UCLA sociology professor. “I first met Pedro in my lecture course, Comparative Acculturation and Assimilation. I remember him as one of the most intellectually curious students, who later would continue our in-class exchanges during office hours.”

Ethnographic research, an M.A. and beyond

Hernández-León guided Pedro to do an ethnographic study of how an Evangelical church in Los Angeles assists newly arrived Brazilian immigrants for his McNair research project.

“When I started, I asked Rubén, can you give me a book to read on ethnography?” related Pedro. “And he basically said, ‘No book, you go to the field next week.’” Pedro became active in the church for roughly nine months, spending more than 10 hours a week between volunteering on site, notetaking and viewing the church’s live-stream services.

At the same time, the Bruin was taking 18–19 credits a quarter at UCLA, earning straight As and mentoring Brazilian students at Santa Monica College.

“Even though Rubén didn't tell me this, it was impressive: Nothing will prepare you to do good work in the field better than doing good work and learning how to navigate situations as they occur,” says Pedro.

“As I started learning how to do it, I fell in love with ethnography. It was a powerful tool to see social life as it happened in front of me.”

Notes Hernández-León, “Pedro quickly gained access to the site and established relations with church leaders and parishioners. He conducted ethnographic observations and interviews, demonstrating that he is an excellent field researcher.” After being invited to pray with the church leaders in the front row, for example, Pedro resorted to taking bathroom breaks in order to take notes unobtrusively on his phone.

“I thought that Pedro would be a very good candidate to join the Latin American Studies M.A. Program as a Departmental Scholar, and I was not disappointed,” says Hernández-León. (Departmental Scholars of the International Institute pursue an M.A. while completing their B.A.)

Pedro, who had been planning to finish his B.A. and return to Brazil and work in a manual labor job for a couple of years, was surprised by Hernández-León’s suggestion to do a master’s degree.

“There is a lot of potential among undergraduates like myself who struggle financially. And the Departmental Scholar route gives you the academic and financial backing to pursue a master's degree, which is not only career breaking, but also breaks the intergenerational cycle,” he says.

Pedro enjoyed the flexibility to design his own M.A. curriculum, choosing to focus on sociology and geography courses, and appreciated the unstinting support he received from his student counselor, Magda Yamamoto.

“Pedro thrived in the M.A. [program], but was also challenged with rigorous coursework and graduate-level expectations,” remarks Hernández-León, who oversaw and subsequently approved an M.A. research paper based on the student’s ethnographic research on Brazilian immigrants.

“As Pedro showed, many of these immigrants access these resources through the weak ties the church and its social media presence provide,” says the sociology professor, who directs the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies. “But the sacred space of the church and the emotional connections attendees develop eventually turn weak ties into strong, multiplex ties, offering immigrants ever more opportunities for integration into the economic and social fabric of southern California.”

After years of economic precarity, Pedro is looking forward to earning a living for a year or two “with his brain” before he pursues a Ph.D. in sociology. But he finishes his studies at UCLA sure of his purpose in life: to help others in the same position where he began.

“The classroom literally saved my life; it gave me a purpose and a path that I never thought I could walk,” he says. “Just as my professor in that first lecture class at UCLA saw untapped potential in me, I feel that is my calling now — to flip the switch for others.”