On the evening of Nov. 9, nearly 150 students, parents and professionals crammed into the orchestra room at Heart of Los Angeles for a post-election town hall meeting.
High school students held their backpacks in their laps and focused their attention at the front of the room. One by one, students raised their hands to ask questions.
Mario Teyssier, 17, slipped through the door an hour into the meeting followed by his father. He was still wearing his white uniform polo. He hung back, hovering at the edge of the room. After a nudge from his father, Teyssier raised his hand.
"Now that Donald Trump is president and Republicans rule the House, what does that mean for DACA students?" he asked.
Teyssier didn't get a certain answer. Program staff told him that Trump hadn't clearly stated the fate of undocumented students protected from deportation by President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Teyssier, a DACA student, nodded to acknowledge the answer. The concerned furrow in his brow remained.
Since then Trump has softened his stance regarding students like Teyssier, but hasn't given details on what his plan will be. Despite uncertainty about his family's future, Teyssier is applying to community colleges. He wants to become a physician's assistant.
Teyssier is one student of many from or receiving program services in MacArthur Park who dream of attaining a college degree. These students face challenges including language barriers, immigration status, poverty, being the first in their family to attend college and family turmoil. From a graduate school scholar to elementary school students with big dreams, the following portraits portray students who are surmounting barriers to reach their goals.Click on each photo to reveal a student's story.
When Carlos Galan got his acceptance letter to the University of California, Los Angeles, he was happy. However, he didn't really understand what going to college meant.
One day, Galan showed up to the high school soccer field for practice after getting his acceptance letter. His soccer coach announced to the team that they had a "Bruin in the house."
"I just looked around and thought, ‘What is a Bruin?'" Galan said.
He didn't understand until his teammates excitedly pushed him into a circle.
"I thought, ‘Oh, it's me I guess,'" Galan said.
Galan's road to an acceptance letter wasn't easy. He came to the United States at 15 not knowing any English. His mother earned minimum wage cleaning houses. Galan played soccer, so he had to keep up his grades. By the beginning of his senior year, Galan was in the top 1 percent of his class at Belmont High School.
Now, Galan works as an outreach advisor for the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. He helps students at four high schools in MacArthur Park apply to college.
Galan had a USC professor as his mentor in high school. His mentor encouraged him to apply to a four-year university even though most of Galan's friends were going to community college. His mentor walked him through the process of applying for federal aid and scholarships. Galan said after receiving his financial aid package, the cost was manageable.
"I remember that it was one of the first times I was happy I was poor because I got all of this money and all of these scholarships," Galan said.
But not every student had the support Galan did. Despite Galan's best efforts, his younger brother did not apply to college. While Galan graduated from UCLA three years ago and is enrolled in a master's program at 26, he said many of his friends still have not graduated from community college. He said by now, most of them have given up.
"I look back at my school and I see kids who entered community college but never left. We have a problem guiding students through the pipelines," Galan said.
The Pullias Center outreach program at USC serves 170 students per year and is expanding to more schools next year. However, Galan's capacity to work with students in MacArthur Park this year was diminished because Belmont High School changed its college counselor position from full time to part time. Galan didn't have access to students in September, a key time for students to get started on their applications.
To supplement the high schools' offerings, the Pullias Center hosts weekend workshops at USC and Galan visits four MacArthur Park area high schools to meet with students. Galan said he wants to support students who are feeling discouraged or pressured to go straight to work instead of going to college.
"I want to help guide students and empower them to pursue an education," Galan said. "I want to expand their horizons beyond their local communities." ◼
Lucrecia Yescas is the first person in her family to go to college. When she was frustrated trying to write her personal statement, her parents tried to encourage her by telling her that the answer would "just come to her." That just made her feel worse.
"They were trying to be supportive, but it just made me frustrated to the point that I was crying," Yescas said.
Yescas' high school counselor couldn't give her the personal attention she needed, so she turned to CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center, for help developing her ideas. She successfully completed her applications and was accepted to UCLA. She is now studying pre-nursing with a minor in education.
Yescas, 18, said she grew up in a bubble. She has never met her grandparents because they live in Mexico. She described her family as a "traditional Latina" family; her parents were protective over her because she was a girl and an only child.
"I think my dad is lonely, that's why he takes care of us so much....The other part of his family is not with him in close contact," Yescas said.
Family became even more central to her life eight years ago when her brother was born. Yescas has a busy schedule with a work-study job, volunteering, and school, but she still makes time to go home. She often babysits her brother and she gives him extra homework each week. Sometimes she drives back from Westwood to MacArthur Park to pick him up from school on Wednesdays when her mom has work.
"I can't be a full-time student. I am a full-time student, but I'm also a big sister. I can't just use my weekends to study," Yescas said.
Whether she is back in MacArthur Park or in Westwood, Yescas said she notices a stigma surrounding Latina students and "being brown." She said people are surprised when she tells them she attends UCLA.
"It's not like, ‘Wow, good for you,' it's like, ‘Wow, how'd you do it?'" Yescas said. "I hope there is a day when it doesn't have to be like that."
Yescas said one of the biggest problems she sees is that successful students leave MacArthur Park and don't come back. She said she doesn't want her children to grow up in the same conditions she did, but she also feels motivated to help others that are in the position she was.
"I just want to see my brother be so much more than I will be. He has all the advantages, and he has been to UCLA and liked it. I want to see him surpass me in that way," Yescas said. ◼
When Kevin was growing up, he lived with his mother in Guatemala while his father worked in the United States. Every evening Kevin's father called to talk to him. Kevin remembers his father's motivational speeches.
"He has always been the type of dad who wanted me to finish my education. He said, ‘That is the best thing you can learn from me,'" Kevin said. Kevin requested that only his first name be used to protect his and his parents' identities.
Kevin, now 19, came to the United States five years ago. He didn't know any English. He ravenously read children's books and trained himself to think in English to learn basic vocabulary. As soon as he got a phone, he switched the language to English. It took him two years to feel comfortable communicating clearly with his teachers. He described himself as a "nerd," and said that adjusting to the language barrier was "terrible."
"I was stressed because I was always one of the first ones to have the work done and stuff like that, and I felt frustrated because I couldn't understand anything," he said.
During his last three semesters of high school, Kevin earned straight "A" grades. He was accepted to all four California State University schools he applied to, and is now a sophomore at California State University, Los Angeles. He is majoring in business with an emphasis in accounting to prepare him to open his own accounting firm someday. Kevin's father was also an accountant when he lived in Guatemala.
Besides taking five classes, Kevin also holds a health ambassador fellowship with the UCLA Labor Center. He works at Clínica Romero in Westlake educating community members about the health care options available for undocumented immigrants.
Both Kevin's parents are undocumented and struggle getting medical treatment for health complications. Kevin is also part of an undocumented student support group, Students United to Reach Goals in Education, at school.
Since the election, Kevin worries that his many undocumented friends and family members might be deported.
"The ambition I have for my future is to become a certified public accountant. If something like [Trump's plans] happens, I won't have my parents around to see what I've done, and others here will lose everything they have achieved," Kevin said. ◼
High school students
Kimberly Saquiche's father died when she was 10 years old. She grew up living with her dad in Guatemala because her mom worked in America to earn money for the family. He stayed up late helping Saquiche draw pictures, and she said he was like a mom and a dad.
"He taught me that any situation might be hard, but I have to keep going and hold up....I want to do whatever it takes to make my dad proud," Saquiche said.
After her father's death, Saquiche moved to MacArthur Park to live with her mom. Upon arriving in the United States she found out that her mother was married to another man. Saquiche said she tried to learn English in eighth grade, but in ninth grade she started acting out and being rebellious. Her stepdad tried to talk to her about her actions, but she didn't want to hear it.
"I said ‘Why should I listen to you? You're nothing to me,'" Saquiche said.
Kids made fun of Saquiche at school because she couldn't speak English. She said she used to cry at night. Saquiche said she decided to learn English to prove the kids and her stepdad wrong.
Saquiche stayed at Heart of Los Angeles for half an hour after tutoring each day to work on her English skills. The staff members made her speak English, which she said helped her get out of her comfort zone. Once she learned math terms in English, she raised her "D" in eighth grade math to a "B" at the end of the year.
In tenth grade Saquiche said her stepdad started to be proud of her, even though she didn't get much support from her mom. Throughout high school, she realized her love of math and science. She then decided she wanted to be a civil engineer.
Though Saquiche dreamt of going to Smith College, a family situation kept her from applying because the school is in Massachusetts. Now, she wants to go to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
In early November, Saquiche sat down with her stepdad to talk about college applications. He expressed his excitement for her future.
"All these four years you have been working hard. I thought you were not going to do anything for your life. I'm proud of you," Saquiche said her stepdad told her. ◼
Jose Fuentes had to be hospitalized often as a child because of his asthma. Fuentes' father was fired from his job of 23 years after being late to several shifts to take Fuentes to the hospital.
Though Fuentes' dad has a work permit, he has had a difficult time finding a job. Fuentes, 18, said his dad "deals with drugs on the side, so that doesn't help either." At age 12, Fuentes got a job and started working to provide for the family.
Fuentes works anywhere from eight to 30 hours per week. Sometimes he doesn't sleep. He said he has missed school to work more hours.
"I feel like I have to for myself as well so I don't have to worry about being on the streets. It's something that concerned me that there was no food, no house," Fuentes said.
Fuentes wants to be an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department after college. Fuentes plans to major in psychology, and he applied to several California State University schools and Holy Names University in Oakland.
He said he wants to help the prevent kids he saw in his neighborhood from going down a "bad path" and getting involved with gangs. He grew up seeing drive-by shootings and graffiti by age 5. Fuentes has a gang-affiliated uncle and used to ditch school sometimes to go hang out with friends he had in gangs. After his dad lost his job, Fuentes said he knew he had to avoid getting tangled up in gang activity.
"I thought, ‘How am I going to be a support like this? Is my dad always going to be taking me out of jail, out of juvie? Are they going to court every month?' I didn't want that," Fuentes said.
Several months ago, Fuentes started taking advantage of programs at Heart of Los Angeles to apply to college. However, he said he is concerned about getting to college without his parents' support. They have refused to take out a loan for him to finance college.
Fuentes is a smiling, talkative presence at Heart of Los Angeles. He thanks staff and cracks jokes with friends. Fuentes said in just a few months, the program has become his family. He said he wants to spread love and make other people happy because he doesn't feel he gets support from his family. Fuentes said he has never heard his mother tell him she loves him.
"I'm using love because it's a big word for me," Fuentes said. "Knowing that I don't have that from my family hurts me so much because I wish I had that support." ◼
The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Mario Teyssier's sister cried.
"It makes me sad because we don't have the same opportunity as people who were born here, but I told her we have to stay strong," Teyssier said.
Teyssier, 17, is protected under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is better known as DACA. Teyssier came to the United States in 2003 from Mexico. Now, Teyssier can apply for two-year work permits and driver's licenses and he gets protection from deportation. Teyssier wants to attend community college to pursue his dream of being a physician's assistant. Because DACA was created by executive action, Trump could stop the program at any time.
"I'm afraid that my DACA, my social security number will be taken away and that would take away a lot of hope. I have high hopes of becoming someone here in this country, and it would basically be ruined," Teyssier said.
Teyssier attends private school at Cathedral High School, a Catholic all-boys school, because his mom wanted to remove him from the environment at his public middle school. He saw kids smoke marijuana and drink alcohol in middle school, but Teyssier said he "wasn't about that life." He said the atmosphere was "hard," and his struggles culminated in him getting suspended for throwing food at a cafeteria worker.
He said after that, he matured and started doing better in school. While Teyssier went to Cathedral, he said one of his friends who went to a public high school is active in tagging, smoking, and drinking.
"I think that if he turned into a person like that, I could have turned into a person like that too. That hits me hard and I thank my mom so much for making me go to Cathedral High School," Teyssier said.
The transition to a private high school wasn't seamless. Teyssier struggled with the different pace of academics. Teyssier achieved "B" honor roll freshman year, but his grades suffered when he joined football junior year. He said he joined football to have an experience to write about for his University of California personal statement, but now his GPA is too low to be competitive.
"I'm planning and trying to stay positive and not bring myself and my self-confidence down even if my plan A didn't go as expected," Teyssier said.
Teyssier said both of his parents tell him they are proud of him for applying to college because neither of them attended college. His father pulled him aside to talk after the post-election town hall meeting when Teyssier said he was feeling fear about possibly moving back to Mexico.
"He told me not to worry because one of us is not staying and one of us is not going. We are going as a family," Teyssier said. "That's the most important part, is staying together." ◼
Elementary school studentsMouse over or touch each student's name to reveal video interviews.
Elementary school students at Heart of Los Angeles said they aren't yet concerned about the challenges their high school counterparts face. Of five students interviewed, only said he might face challenges getting into college – harder math and English classes. Heart of Los Angeles requested that the students' first names be used because of their age.
The students' positive answers do not mean they are immune to obstacles, and the circumstances that will shape their lives for years to come were apparent in the goals they set.
Deisy, a fifth grader, wants to go to her dream middle school, John Burroughs Middle School. Rosela, a third grader, said she wants to go to college, but said that she has heard it is "expensive to buy."a fifth grader, wants to follow in her sister's footsteps and go to college. She also said one of her goals is to "help my parents get their papers to go to different countries."
a fifth grader, said her goal is to go do better on tests and grades so she doesn't disappoint her parents. She also eventually wants to travel to Mexico to visit her grandparents, whom she has never met. She said she calls her grandparents on their birthdays and tells them that she might visit.
"I want have at least some money to give to my parents and grandparents to help them live in a better place," Michelle said. ◼