When Hilda Solis was a senior in high school, just a few weeks away from graduation, she wasn't thinking about college.
Instead, the daughter of immigrant parents who met in citizenship class wanted to be a receptionist, or -- if she was really lucky -- a county clerk, like her older sister.
But one day, a chance encounter changed everything. Walking through the halls at La Puente High School in her native Los Angeles County, the teenage Solis bumped into her former seventh-grade history teacher.
The teacher, whom she remembers as Mr. Sanchez, had since become a high school guidance counselor. He asked about her future plans.
When she answered that she hoped to work for the county, Mr. Sanchez surprised her by responding in the negative.
"He said, 'Oh no, you've got to go to college,'" she said, speaking to HispanicBusiness.com during a recent sit-down interview. "I said, 'What are you talking about? I can't afford college.'"
It turns out Mr. Sanchez knew what he was talking about. He helped Solis navigate the paperwork maze of applying to Cal-Poly Pomona, where she was not only accepted, but also received a full Cal-grant scholarship and financial aid. She went on to earn a master's in public administration from USC. This led to an internship in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs in the Carter administration.
Today, Solis, 52, is the nation's Secretary of Labor, making her the first Hispanic woman to serve as a regular U.S. cabinet secretary.
Hilda Solis's story is surprisingly common, and shows how the booming U.S. Hispanic population, while making steady gains over the years in education and the workplace, remains a sea of untapped potential.
It also offers a telling illustration of how razor-thin the line between ordinary and extraordinary can be. Especially for the Hispanic population, which still suffers from disproportionately low high school and college graduation rates.
Many prominent Hispanics have stories that are eerily similar.
One of them is Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, now one of the nation's highest-ranking public education officials and this magazine's recently named Woman of the Year.
But in Melendez's version, the high school counselor told her she wouldn't be able to hack it at the four-year college of her dreams, UCLA. It wasn't until one of her instructors at a community college encouraged her to apply to UCLA that she did. For there on out, she thrived. Today she's the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.
Another trailblazer with a similar story is Millie Garcia, president of California State Univerity's Dominguez Hills campus, and California's first female Hispanic president of a CSU school. Garcia grew up in a Brooklyn tenement neighborhood surrounded by factories, where her parents worked. Newly drawn boundary lines seeking to de-segregate the students meant she would attend an upper-middle-class public elementary school. Her five older siblings didn't benefit from these boundary lines. To this day, Garcia, who holds a doctorate in higher education from Columbia University, is the only member of her family with a college degree.
"I'm not smarter than them; I just had more opportunities," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine. "Anyone can do this if they work hard and have a good support network."
Unfortunately, success stories like theirs are still the exception.
A study several years ago by the Pew Hispanic Center found that just 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates earned a bachelor's degree by age 29, compared to 37 percent of whites and 21 percent of African Americans. Also, in 2007, the dropout rate among Hispanic high school students was an alarming 21.4 percent, compared to 5.3 percent among whites and 8.4 percent among blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
With low graduation numbers comes low expectations from teachers and career counselors. Such expectations can have a permanent effect on a person's potential.
Conversely, the stories of Solis, Melendez and Garcia illustrate not only how student performance often rises to the level of heightened expectations, but also the profound difference one good educator can make.
In Solis's case, the effect of the counselor's encouraging words spread to the rest of her family.
Solis was the middle of seven children. After seeing Solis thrive in college, all three of her younger sisters followed suit. Today, one of her sisters has a doctorate in public health from UCLA. Two more have engineering degrees from the same school. In addition, her older sister -- the county clerk on whom Solis modeled her own early ambitions -- went back to school. She's now in the process of earning her Bachelor of Science degree in business.
It could even be said that Mr. Sanchez's intervention had a tangible effect on all Californians -- whether they like it or not.
In 1994, Solis became the first Hispanic woman elected to the California State Senate. She served aggressively.
During her four terms, she successfully spearheaded legislation to raise the California's minimum wage and protect poor neighborhoods from being the default locations for landfills. In 2000, her commitment to "environmental justice" made her the first woman ever to win the Profile in Courage Award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
The ripple effects of Ms. Melendez's scholastic success also spread far and wide.
Before getting to where she is, Melendez was superintendent of the struggling Pomona Unified School District near Los Angeles. Under her tenure, the students' test scores skyrocketed, so much so that Pomona witnessed record improvements for three consecutive years, and achieved the second-highest jump in California. In 2009, Melendez was named California's Superintendent of the Year.
"It really is all about expectation," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine in April. "I firmly believe that the interaction between the student and teacher is the most important that occurs on the school ground."
Solis says there are many, many more who could thrive if they had someone encouraging them to excel -- like how Mr. Sanchez encouraged her.
"He motivated me, he believed in me," she said. "And I think about if he didn't do that, and how many other kids didn't run into him, who could be doing the same thing I'm doing. There's no magic to it; I wasn't a 4.0 student. I was a decent student, but I also worked very hard."
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