Excerpt from ‘3 Teens Who’ve Been There and Now Help Others’ in Bay Area Parent
by Angela Geiser
Jonathan Szkup-Valdez, 21, grew up in a poor, drug-ravaged neighborhood in East Oakland. Both parents were undocumented immigrants with felonies, so it was hard for them to find work. When one parent was at home, the other was typically in jail. Jonathan says that never bothered him until the day a friend asked where his dad was.
“I was stunned, not because I hadn’t seen my dad in weeks, but because I couldn’t answer this simple question,” Jonathan writes in an email interview.
Somehow, Jonathan still managed to do well in school. “Though my belly was empty most nights, my mind was full of dreams of success, and this motivated me as a student,” he explains.
Still, he couldn’t avoid the reality of his neighborhood. Friends and neighbors, even those who Jonathan had admired, often turned to addiction and ended up behind bars. In this environment, he often got into trouble, or “unfortunate situations,” as he calls them.
“I will never forget the day, July 3, when I was riding home, and shots were fired my way,” he says. “The bullets whistled past my ears, but thankfully I was alright.”
Jonathan says his dad’s absence, the financial instability and all the pressures of being a teen in East Oakland nearly pushed him to a meltdown.
About this time, Jonathan learned of Students Rising Above. SRA is a nonprofit in San Francisco that helps promising Bay Area students from impoverished backgrounds get into and succeed at college and beyond. Jonathan applied as a high school junior, and based on his application, grades and an interview, SRA accepted him into the program.
For Jonathan, it was a turning point. Meeting his mentor, whom he found inspiring, and learning what SRA had to offer – tutoring, application help, financial aid, internships and more – cemented his decision to go to college.
With financial aid and scholarships making it possible, Jonathan was accepted and enrolled as a political science and history major at Colby-Sawyer College in rural New Hampshire, a long way from Oakland. He is excelling there and expects to graduate this year. His next step is law school and he sees himself running for office someday.
Though he doesn’t have to, Jonathan often comes home to Oakland during school breaks. “Jonathan takes it upon himself to give back by providing guidance to other young students that may be facing similar challenges as he did,” his SRA advisor, Marisol Curiel, says.
He has made several presentations locally about stopping human trafficking, a cause that’s important to him. He also guides and encourages younger SRA students whenever he can, such as when he recently helped a fellow SRA peer settle into his internship at the Port of Oakland, where Jonathan previously interned.
Though Jonathan says he isn’t exactly sure where his career path will lead, he knows he wants to come back to his community and “transform it into a vibrant, peaceful place with grassroots organization.”
“I find myself constantly asked, ‘Why do you come back here? There’s nothing here.’” Jonathan says. He responds: “To give back to those who have given so much to me.” ■
Bay Area Parent | Teen Focus 2016