Marlene Castro loved learning, but life in East Palo Alto and Redwood City, where her family alternately lived, made it tough. In an environment of gangs, weapons and school lockdowns, the high-achieving student was bullied constantly in middle school and high school – even jumped on and beaten.
“I was definitely a minority and a target,” said Castro, 22, whose parents came to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico. “To be safe after school, I eventually joined College Track,” an off-site program that widened her horizons with information about options for college and financial aid.
Today, Castro is one of only five students from her former middle school who made it to college. After getting her diploma from UC Berkeley this spring, she aims to change those odds for youth by joining Teach for America and becoming “a teacher, a principal, a school superintendent, and sitting on a board of education for my community.”
Castro is the first in her extended family to attend college. Doing so is fulfilling a wish from her mother, who never got to finish high school and wanted more for her two children. “The opportunity for higher education in Mexico was not there for her. She didn’t have money to pay for it,” said Castro, “and there is no financial aid.”
Castro decided to apply to UC Berkeley after a recruiter visited her high school from the campus’s Incentive Awards Program, which provides scholarships and support resources for low-income, first-generation students with leadership potential, good grades and a commitment to serve others.
It was over the loudspeaker at high school that she learned she’d won an Incentive Award, and been accepted to UC Berkeley. “Usually the loudspeaker was used for discipline,” she said. “It was the best feeling ever – I had been the underdog, the minority, the bullied kid. Suddenly, everyone knew that I didn’t let anything stop me from getting into college, that whatever anger people might have had toward me didn’t beat me down.”
Before long, Castro was a UC Berkeley freshman seeing a dorm room for the first time, meeting people from many backgrounds, learning to navigate financial aid and professors’ office hours, and finding leadership positions with the Cal Corps Public Service Center office and the Incentive Awards Program.
The political science and rhetoric major also discovered what a research university is all about. “When I was applying to Berkeley, I never focused on that aspect,” said Castro. “But it’s about investigating questions, and Berkeley allows undergraduates to do research to create well-rounded and global-ready students who can contribute to the world.”
Castro took a research methods course in political science and, before her fourth year at UC Berkeley, was in a research fellowship in Washington, D.C., with the Urban Institute, eventually publishing a policy brief on education. “I’ve developed the skill set to make positive and transformational change,” she said.
Since all her electives were in education, Castro added a multiple subject teaching certificate to her résumé and will be teaching middle school in Oakland through Teach for America this fall. This summer, she will train at Teach for America’s institute for five weeks, work as a student teacher at summer school, then head to her first teaching job.
Having seen the “mistreatment and discrimination” her parents endure working in housekeeping and gardening for Silicon Valley customers, Castro said she also hopes her teaching career will help them retire from physically difficult work, which does not come with benefits.
Layla Naranjo, program director and academic counselor for UC Berkeley’s Incentive Awards Program in the Office of Student Development, said Castro is special because she was “literally and metaphorically beaten down and told she wouldn’t go to college. What makes her so special is her ability to push past the negativity and the obstacles while helping others along the way.”
“I carry scars from those middle-school years,” said Castro, “but they’ve empowered me to become a teacher as a way to help support young teens, and to help them learn at such a critical time, when there’s an upsurge in bullying and students are attempting to understand themselves and the world they live in. No one is worth falling through the cracks.”