Environmental Studies, Studying (or Not) in Environments: The Success Story of Jimmy Padilla

Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Jimmy Padilla

The afternoon I sit down to write the story of Jimmy Padilla, I Google the name of the high school he attended to get a better sense of what he’s overcome to make it as a UC Santa Barbara student majoring in Environmental Sciences and working towards his Science and Mathematics Education Minor. The first hit is this hours-old headline from the LA Times: “17 people, including officer, exposed to pepper spray during brawl at L.A. high school.”

The portrait at John C. Fremont High School in South Central LA isn’t pretty: it has a 63% graduation rate, while 64% of the students are determined not proficient in math, 74% not proficient in English (both according to the California High School Exit Exam).  “The windows all were barred,” Padilla says, “It looks more like a prison than a school.”

It wasn’t just the environment that was difficult. “While we had some really great teachers,” Padilla says, singling out an AP Chem teacher in particular, who sadly, is no longer teaching, “many were terrible.” He tells the tale of one math teacher who “would read the paper all through class – he’d just put problems on the board for us to solve on our own.”

Not surprisingly, the transition from John C. Fremont to UC Santa Barbara was nearly impossible. “I said I wasn’t going to do the party stuff – and I couldn’t with a hundred dollars a quarter spending money and not such good clothes – but I still failed out anyway,” Padilla recalls. “I never had to study in high school, so I wasn’t prepared.” In addition to poor study skills and not realizing he had to attend every class (he never did in high school and it didn’t matter), the heart of his difficulties might point right back to that paper-reading math teacher; Padilla failed the same math class twice.

He returned home spring quarter not telling his mom the truth, just claiming he had to clear his head, making sure he worked to save up to re-try with summer school; even his brother got a job to loan him money. Padilla came back that summer, got good grades, and was re-admitted for the fall. Not that summer was easy – his IV apartment was furnished with only a bed and a desk, for that’s all the money he had. “I lied to people that came over, telling them I hadn’t completely moved in yet,” he says. He survived on 7-11 hotdogs and pasta donated to the Associated Students Food Bank.

Re-enrolling allowed him to pursue his dream. “I want to teach in an underserved community – I want to help kids not be unprepared like I was.” He’s also driven to teach the message of Environmental Science in a big city like his home LA; “Those concerns are the least of people’s worries, so they need to know about it even more,” he points out, bringing up issues like the horrible water situation in Flint, Michigan.

What particularly turned him on was a CalTeach minor class, Foundations of Environmental Education, taught by Bridget Lewin. “It was so good, I wanted to be her,” he says. “I saw how she taught and wanted to be that teacher. She helped make kids want to learn and say, ‘Hey, tell me more.’”

“As I learned of some of the details of Jimmy’s pathway to UCSB and becoming a participant in the CalTeach program here, I felt his story would be inspiring to others,” Sue Johnson, one of Padilla’s teachers in the minor, observes. “The purpose of CalTeach is to recruit and mentor talented undergraduates. I am so glad he is allowing us to share his story, after only a small amount of arm twisting, as an example of achieving in spite of the odds.”

Padilla is on track to graduate spring 2017, especially now that he can only take 12 credits a quarter for he’s landed a halftime job as a Community Hazardous Waste Technician for UCSB’s Office of Environmental Health & Safety. That means he receives a tuition break, gets benefits, and works in the field he is also studying. It’s a long way from his dark days thinking he wasn’t going to make it in college. It turns out his girlfriend of three years goes to CSU Long Beach studying to teach special education students, so Padilla says, “It would be cool if we both became teachers.”