San José City College alum, Jorge Arellano, is currently the Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement at Alpha Public Schools in San José. From his time at City College, he developed the vision of becoming a teacher and then a principal in underserved communities. For over 20 years now, he has lived out that vision working in East San José. He recently transitioned from being the principal at Alpha Cindy Avitia High School to his current role overseeing advocacy and community engagement efforts across the Alpha network.
At City College, Jorge became passionate about the transformational power of education, having experienced it himself at SJCC. It was there, he decided he wanted to be a role model for his community to help give people a choice about their future. After City College, he received his bachelor’s and master’s from Santa Clara University, and then obtained his teaching and administrative credentials.
Jorge Arellano and his mother at his SJCC graduation
Jorge grew up in East San José and spent most of his high school years involved in gangs. This brought him frequently in and out of juvenile hall, where he actually focused in school. After getting out, a counselor brought him to take a college placement assessment. He didn’t realize what he had done at the time, but when he found out he was a City College student, his whole world was transformed.
Jorge’s first teaching position was in Santa Clara County’s juvenile hall.
San José City College is celebrating its 100-year anniversary all year long, bringing us together with former and current City College students, faculty, staff, and administrators. We had a chance to talk with Jorge about how he got to City College and how it changed his life.
How did you get to City College?
It’s been quite the journey. I grew up in a neighborhood where the rite of passage for most kids was to join a gang. Every year, kids went from playing dodgeball and marbles to, by the time they were 12 or 13, joining the gang. Unfortunately, I was no exception. By the age of 12, I was experimenting with drugs and by the age of 14, I was heavily involved in the neighborhood gang. Although my mother did the best she could to steer me away from that lifestyle, she lacked the skills, resources, and social capital to combat the negative forces in the neighborhood I ended up succumbing to. It got to the point where I didn’t think I could do anything differently than what all my friends were doing.
From about the ages of 14 to 18, I was heavily involved in drugs and gangs, and in and out of juvenile hall. That was my life. That’s where I got my status and sense of worth. Yet when I was in juvenile hall, I would apply myself in school. I figured, ‘I’m stuck here, I might as well read and do well in school.’ This is actually why I was able to graduate from high school. I was in the system so long, I was only 23 credits away from graduating high school when I was released.
Like most students who are in and out of the system, I ended up attending a community school upon my release. When I was close to graduating, a counselor brought seven of us to take a placement test. Honestly, I went for the field trip. I was still involved in gangs at the time, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into.
I took the placement test and spent most of the day on campus. A couple of months later, I got a call from someone at City College asking me to come meet with my EOP&S counselor so I could get my classes. I said, “What do you mean my classes?” They said, “you’re enrolled in college.” “Wait, seriously? What do you mean? I’m a college student?” “Yeah, you’re enrolled in college. We can help you with your financial aid.”
For me, there was a great deal of dissonance, because I perceived myself as having no business in college. My identity had been forged in the streets and gang life. To all of a sudden see myself as a college student was kind of mindboggling. I remember even my family and friends were in disbelief. It took a whole year for my family to come to terms with it.
Miss Covarrubias was one of the first counselors to help me fill out financial aid forms and enroll in classes. She and another counselor gave me a very light schedule, which looking back now, I’m very grateful they did. I tested into remedial classes and they very strategic in placing me in the right classes. They could have placed me in more classes, and I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.
I took two classes the first semester, basic reading and writing and basic math. I had serious imposter syndrome, but I was doing okay. Then one day, I had a shift in confidence. There was an older white lady in class. We were asked about a reading assignment and she articulated her answer. It was very different than how I interpreted the passage. I started second guessing myself thinking I was wrong, but I decided to give my interpretation anyway. It turned out I was correct, and the lady was wrong.
I had assumed that since she was an older white woman, she would be correct. That moment gave me a certain sense of validation and affirmation. I didn’t know I was in a remedial class. That might have changed how I felt if I knew. But being in that space, for the very first time I was able to perceive myself as a smart person and a capable learner. It was a transformational moment for me. It made me feel I actually belonged in college.
After that, I was sold. I got A’s in both of my classes. It was like a drug for me. I thought, “This is amazing!” The idea of being a college student gave me a sense of worth and made me feel very successful. Because I also had a job, I was able to buy two backpacks, one for each class, along with note cards and supplies for each one. I walked through City College as if I was walking on clouds. Even when I got accepted to Santa Clara University, I can genuinely say that, for me, being accepted to San José City College was that much more meaningful, because of how I went from perceiving myself as a gang member, to all of a sudden, becoming a college student.
I was on top of the world. I was on top! By the time I was accepted to Santa Clara University, there was already a sense that I had earned it because I had proven myself as a capable student. Whereas, when I got to San José City, my confidence was nowhere near that. I can only imagine that it’s like somebody getting accepted into their dream reach school, like a Harvard or Yale. For me, that’s the way I felt being a college student at San José City College.
I was so excited about college, I started recruiting a bunch of my friends who were gang members. I would say, “Guys, we need to go there. We can do it. We actually can achieve this!” I enrolled a few friends, they dropped out. Eventually, I convinced my sisters to enroll. One sister did the Cosmetology program and my other sister went on to become a teacher. Both of my brothers also attended college. One brother didn’t finish and instead went into management, while my other brother also became a teacher. Early on, I had this vision of “I want everybody to go to college. As many people as possible in my community need to take advantage of this!”
It was after I took a Mexican American Studies class with Mr. Jesus Covarrubias at City College that I became even more passionate about promoting education. I didn’t understand some of the social dynamics and societal patterns that could explain a lot of the experiences I had growing up. I had never analyzed society from that lens. To learn more about Chicano history and my place within that history gave me the ability to see myself as part of this broader movement and people, and now I get to decide. I have a choice. I can either be part of the progress, or I can be part of that victimization and allow these forces to determine my place in society.
It gave me a sense of power to choose, and to know I could rise above the circumstances despite the fact that the system is not necessarily designed to have me succeed. Knowing that made me feel I needed to do this, not only for myself, but for my family and the broader community. That’s why I stayed in my community and didn’t move away. This is why 21 years later I’m still doing what I committed to do back when I was at City College.
I remember thinking vividly, there are kids right now in my neighborhood who are almost destined to go to prison – almost destined for a life too painful to think about. I knew I needed to be an example for them. I needed to create change so they could also have choices in life.
An example that would come to mind was, if you’re in a hole, and there’s a ladder there, but it is so pitch dark you can’t find the ladder, do you really have one? I remember learning about the idea of social mobility as it being something everybody could have. But you can only have it if you see it, if you see the ladder. We, in my community, didn’t see the ladder. That didn’t exist. I knew kids in that situation, and I wanted to be an agent for change, to make sure that I brought that level of awareness to my community.
A lot of the visions I had for my future were developed at San José City College. I’m still living them out. Those seeds were sown at City College. I’m very grateful to everyone who was a part of my journey, who came alongside me and encouraged me in a time when my resolve was very fragile. Anything could have derailed my experience.
Thanks to amazing counselors like Gina Ronzano, Ms. Carole Young, Miss Covarrubias, who really took the time to connect with me and guide me. The fact that everyone was so kind and thoughtful in how they interacted with me was truly transformational for me. I want to thank everyone who in one way or another had a tremendous impact in shaping the course of my destiny.
As a principal, I was amazed to attend graduations and to see a hundred students graduating and going to college. I’ve had the opportunity to counsel students who are considering attending San José City, and I always tell them, “absolutely do it!”