SAN LUIS, Ariz. — Five years ago when he was in high school, some people, including some teachers, wondered if Arturo Garcia had the aptitude and the drive to go on to a university, he recalled recently.
But Garcia showed he not only could survive but thrive in college.
He graduated last month from Duke University with a double major in civil engineering and architecture. He needed three years to complete his studies at the Durham, N.C., university, and in August he’s scheduled begin work on a master’s at Columbia University.
Garcia came to the United States at age 12 when his family immigrated from Mexico, where he had shown a knack for mathematics. But starting his studies anew at Southwest Junior High School in San Luis, Ariz., he had little English fluency.
And what’s more, Garcia didn’t see any need to learn the language.
“I refused to learn English. At first I would say that I didn’t like it, that I already knew Spanish and that that was my language. It took me three years to feel comfortable speaking (English) and I struggled with writing it. (All the other subjects in school) were easy for me.”
And while with time, English came to be natural for him, his strength has always been mathematics. At San Luis High School, he was among a limited number of students who took advanced, college-level math classes.
While in high school, he took part in a summer school program that Arizona State University offered for high school students who had demonstrated excellence in math and science. And then in his junior year, he was accepted into a Harvard University summer school program for gifted high school students, where he studied math and literature.
Getting into the Harvard program took determination, but Garcia knew he could do it. “I’ve always considered myself as having good self-esteem. I’m fairly intrepid and I don’t worry about how things will work out.”
Not everyone was as confident in his academic abilities, he said.
“People were telling me not to try to take college classes to get ahead, and when I applied for (the) Harvard (summer program), they laughed at me. I think the stereotype still exists that Hispanics are suited only for manual labor.”
In 2010, Garcia was accepted to Duke University, with a full scholarship. But as had happened during his first year at Southwest Junior High School, he initially found himself struggling at Duke.
“Students from the best high schools in the country were coming there. I felt frustrated, my (academic) foundations had been very lax, but it gave me courage to work twice as hard. It took a long time to get to the academic level of the other students. My friends would say to me, why don’t you understand this, it’s common knowledge.”
Garcia says area schools and students share a common mission to raise academic performance.
“We have mathematics in our blood,” he said, referring to Latino students. “We are Aztecs, we are descended from the Mayans. Unfortunately, there are certain teachers who expect to see a certain stereotype in a person. I hope they give everyone a chance.”
Related to that, he said, is the challenge “to set academic standards higher, because we leave here and we find out that we’re not at the level of the other students. We have to maximize what we have.”
But he said youths share responsibility for their future success.
“I would tell them that time passes and that before they know it, they are old and stuck without a focus. You always have to try to be better in all aspects and to have goals. It’s sad not having anything to fight for.”