Wearing a suit on a warm Friday afternoon in the Berkeley Law Library, Shawn Trabanino smiled as he reflected on his first few weeks at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Years before, an end to his high school education hadn’t even been in sight.
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Trabanino chose to put his higher education ambitions on hold to provide for family members who suddenly fell ill.
“Somebody had to do something,” Trabanino said. “To me, it was instinctual that I had to do that. I wasn’t going to let my family become homeless. I didn’t feel like there was another choice.”
Eventually, he enrolled in community college in 2011 and transferred into the UC system at UCLA before beginning this semester at Berkeley Law. After helping other students apply to college through a nonprofit he founded, he hopes to work as an education policy maker in Washington, D.C. in the future.
“I started with a dream and knew I had to take it one step at a time,” he said. “And that’s what I did.”
An education on hold
Trabanino had already received college acceptance letters when his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his father with cancer. His father was the sole source of income for the family, working in a factory to support his wife and children, and had attained only a fourth-grade-level education, while Trabanino’s mother had none. Trabanino realized that putting his high school education on hold was the only way to support the family while his father was sick.
“There’s a lot of people who live this reality,” Trabanino said. “So many people suffer, and the escape from that suffering is education for a lot of people.”
In East Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino and low-income area, only 45.7 percent of residents have attained at least a high school degree and only 5.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Trabanino said some of his friends dropped out of high school because of teen pregnancy or drug addiction. One was killed before reaching graduation.
While working a low-paying job to make ends meet, he and his brother co-founded an organization, Quetzal Computers, to help others in their community earn a high school diploma. Through the program, Trabanino and his brother taught English, math and computer skills to help their students obtain a GED.
When the 2008 recession hit, however, students came to Trabanino with a different question: They wanted to know how to earn a greater salary by pursuing a college degree. It prompted him to reflect on his own unfulfilled ambitions for college.
“I had this itch — I never did that,” Trabanino said. “The time had come … to see what I can do.”
‘Never thought possible’
Though he hadn’t been in school for several years, he enrolled at the local community college, East Los Angeles College. There, he faced what he considers another unfair barrier for students who had problems getting to school in the first place — the school was proposing a tuition increase.
During that time, he represented students on a local district board for community colleges and actively protested the tuition increases as part of a campus movement, Occupy East L.A. College. Ultimately, the school declined to raise tuition.
“I was upset because in my own life, I struggled to get an education, too,” he said. “The community showed up to support students, the solidarity kept us going.”
After two years at community college, Trabanino applied and was accepted to his dream school, UCLA — a feat he had never thought possible years before.
“I literally ran into the street and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘I got into UCLA,’ ” he said.
At first, he thought that if he were accepted to UCLA, he’d have “made it” and wouldn’t need to push himself further to worry about grades. But he found that once he was there, he was even more motivated to challenge himself. The thought of going to school for something bigger than himself and later helping his community kept him going, he said.
Berkeley Law bound
Since graduating from UCLA in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Trabanino said he realized how important it is to have representatives in high levels of government who understand the perspectives of disadvantaged constituents.
After three months in the White House as an intern with the Domestic Policy Council, which advises officials on educational matters, Trabanino said he hopes to become a policymaker in Washington D.C. In the meantime, he is studying at Berkeley Law to build up his law knowledge base.
He emphasized the importance of taking things one step at a time and staying open to unexpected opportunities.
Growing up, Trabanino said law school wasn’t on his radar as a feasible expectation. He said, however, that it was his parents who instilled in him the importance of getting an education and who gave him a good home.
“We weren’t rich, but we had love. That’s important in creating a human being,” Trabanino said. “I had a lot of help along the way. … I made it because people reached out a hand when I needed it.”
He currently lives in Berkeley with his wife, Ludimila, whom he met on his first day at UCLA. While he studies law, she is on pre-med track and aspires to be a doctor.
“I wonder who I would be if I had (gone) straight to college. I also think it was probably for the best,” he said. “I wouldn’t have an understanding of what it means to go through something. … Even though the path wasn’t traditional, I ended up on the path I was supposed to be and that’s where I am today.”
A previous version of this article may have implied that Shawn Trabanino went to high school in East Los Angeles. In fact, he went to high school in Bellflower, California, while residing in East Los Angeles.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a nonprofit Shawn Trabanino founded helps students attain their GEDs. In fact, the nonprofit, College Counseling Corps, offers college counseling services to prospective college students.
Because of misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article said that while growing up, Shawn Trabanino did not know anyone who had gone to college or graduate school. In fact, two of his older siblings attended college.