An unlikely Cal student

Transfer student uses education as way out of struggles, works to provide others support

Melissa Padilla and her son.
Gracie Malley/Senior Staff
Melissa Padilla and her son.

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UC Berkeley junior Melissa Padilla was 13 the first time she ran away from home, though she doesn’t remember why or for how long.

She was 14 when she started drinking, a juvenile diversion that soon turned into daily habit. She was 15 when she got hooked on meth.

Padilla’s troubles weren’t particularly atypical in the rural, working-class California town where she grew up. Her classes were filled with gang members, teenage moms and low-level drug dealers — kids who were deemed failures before they’d made it halfway through adolescence.

She’s not a person anyone thought would end up at UC Berkeley.

“I should probably be in prison or dead right now,” Padilla said. “People told me by the time I turned 25, I would be dead or locked away.”

She turned 25 in September. And she’s not dead or in jail. Instead, she’s thriving as a UC Berkeley transfer student, trying to survive her first round of finals and hoping to one day help troubled youth who have given up on themselves as she once did.

Choosing sides

Padilla doesn’t remember at what point things began to get bad, only that once they did, they spun out of control quickly. Drug addiction, alcoholism and gang banging were not uncommon where she grew up in Lake Elsinore, a town on the outskirts of Riverside County.

“It’s a horrible city because there’s nothing to do, no extracurricular activities, and if there was, we couldn’t afford to participate,” Padilla said. “There’s two gangs that dominate the streets, and it’s in the meth capital of the nation. I remember houses in the neighborhood blowing up.”

With a per capita income level nearly $7,000 less than the statewide average and a population in which less than 18 percent of residents age 25 or over have a 4-year college degree — as compared to 30 percent in California overall — Lake Elsinore is not exactly a pristine vision of middle-class suburbia.

Padilla says her own parents never went to college and made no efforts to encourage her, intellectually or otherwise, growing up. They didn’t particularly engage with her at all, really, she says.

“I can’t remember a time when my mom read a book to me or hugged or kissed me,” Padilla said. “She was physically there, but she wasn’t mentally or emotionally there, (so I) started finding comfort in other things.”

Susan Holloway, a professor of cognition and development in UC Berkeley’s School of Education, said that often low-income parents are simply too overextended to devote the time or energy a young child might require for such achievement.

“A lot of it is … that low-income people have more difficult life circumstances,” Holloway said. “They might be more stressed out when they are with the kids and don’t have the time or emotional energy to engage in these long conversations with their children.”

These differences in levels of engagement can have serious consequences for a child’s cognitive abilities later in life, according to Jill Berrick, a professor in the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

“We’ve found that the most powerful predictor (of achievement) is income, and it’s in part driven by differences in vocabulary and those are hard to catch up (on),” she said.

For reasons Padilla cannot pinpoint, between eighth and ninth grade, she turned from an average student to one who would barely show up to class.

Padilla lasted three months in high school before getting kicked out for defiance and fighting. She was then sent to an alternative school where students were expected to learn by completing packets and classes were segregated by gang membership affiliation.

“They threw me into this pack of wolves and hyenas — you have to fight,” Padilla said. “You have to choose a side. I chose my side.”

An adopted family

Padilla describes the allure of the gang as a place a person could turn to when his or her own family support was lacking.

Padilla was the driver. The accomplice. She stayed out late on the streets and was shipped from one high school to the next for acting out or breaking rules or getting drunk or selling drugs. By the time she graduated, she had attended six different high schools. Her mother had no idea what to do with a daughter so far gone and often kicked her out of the house — pushing her further into the arms of other dropouts, misfits and criminals.

Padilla continued to detach, physically and emotionally. She was raped at 14 by an older boy — her first sexual experience — and mentally blocked the experience out until speaking about it for this story, nearly 11 years later.

“He made me feel like I was just this piece of meat,” Padilla said. “I lost a lot of self-respect at that point.”

She sunk further and further into this life, running on alcohol, male attention and the rush of the streets. Nothing could faze her.

Her younger brother Salvador recalled this tumultuous time in her life vividly.

“One of the memories I will never forget, I don’t know why, was when I walked into our bedroom and she was getting a tattoo on her lower stomach area, and I had no idea who it was, just some guy she had brought over,” said Salvador Padilla. “I just walked out of the room — I never told anybody.”

She was 15.

Hooked immediately

That was that same year that Padilla started using meth.

“The first time I did it, I was hooked immediately,” she said. “It was a weeknight, it was late and I was drunk with some friends. I didn’t want to get up early for community service, and they told me, ‘We have something that will keep you up.’ I knew what it was.”

For eight months, she was regularly high on meth, barely coming home at all and physically just a shadow of her former self.

Padilla can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment she began to sober up, but after nearly a year out of high school and on drugs, she was ready to tone down the craziness.

“I think in her head she was ashamed and she wanted to get (everything) out,” said Crystal Beauregard, a friend who met Padilla as a teenager.

She took small steps to pull her life together, starting with getting accepted to a specialized school and finding a job at a pizza place down the street from her house where Beauregard also worked.

Padilla told Beauregard about her problems with family, with school and, especially, with meth.

“(Beauregard) came to my house and grabbed my glass pipe and smashed it,” Padilla remembered.  “(She told me) ‘If you’re going to be my friend, please don’t do that.’”

Padilla hasn’t used meth since.

A step forward

She began focusing in school, relieved to be back in a relatively stable situation, and ultimately graduated at 17 from a normal high school —  though she said she had to work three times as hard to catch up.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but it didn’t seem feasible at the time — the only way out was with the military,” Padilla said. “I looked into it and was studying to take the ASVAB exam.”

Then she found out she was pregnant.

“My mom wasn’t going to help me raise my son — not that I expected her to,” Padilla said. “My dad said, ‘Don’t ask me for anything.’ I didn’t feel like I had to rely on anybody — it was something I had to do on my own.”

After her son was born, Padilla began raising him by herself with intermittent help from the child’s father. But without any work or life skills, she found herself floating around, working on and off at various temp jobs.

Still, she was adamant about not raising her son in the same place she grew up, and, as luck would have it, she found an administrative job at a consulting firm in Huntington Beach. The man she worked for, Vincent Cunningham, saw potential in Padilla, even though she had no professional work experience or college degree.

“I was an air force officer, and as a military officer …  you look for a leader, not for someone who’s got a diploma,” Cunningham explained. “You look for someone who’s going to drive results.”

Padilla worked for Cunningham on and off for nearly four years and proved herself to be the sharp, forward-focused worker he initially hoped she would be. He encouraged her to enroll in community college and pursue higher education, even when her parents chastised her to find stable work and settle down.

She lived on welfare and was in a homeless shelter and later transitional housing for nearly two years while enrolled in community college. People in her life thought she was crazy for going to school while dealing with all of her other struggles.

“(They thought), ‘Here’s the young mother who’s homeless. Why does she want to go to school? That’s the last thing she should be worrying about,’” Padilla said.

Education: The real way out

Although it took her longer than many, Padilla graduated from Orange Coast College with honors from three different honor societies, a record of heavy involvement in various community service organizations and a 3.9 GPA. When she was accepted to UC Berkeley last spring, she cried upon receiving the news.

“Education is the real way out,” Padilla said. “Do you think when I graduate from Berkeley, I’m going to go back on welfare?”

But how was she able to climb out when so many others who lived through similar situations end up working menial jobs, in prison, or dead?

Padilla herself has no answer. Holloway, the professor in the School of Education, theorized that perhaps it is her personal resilience — a general concept describing the innate quality certain people have to bounce back from difficult circumstances — that has helped her achieve success.

“It seems like in (Padilla’s) case, it’s her own personal characteristics that have enabled her to keep going,” Holloway said. “It sounds like she is someone who had luck in that (she was) born with characteristics that helped her succeed.”

For now, Padilla is working toward a degree in political science and is part of the campus George A. Miller Scholars Program, designed to help low-income, first-generation college students. She’s also trying to create opportunities for her son that she never had growing up.

“When you’re living in poverty, you walk around in shackles,” she said. “Berkeley gave me a key. My job is to help other people and help them get out.”

Contact Sara Grossman at [email protected].

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