Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, visited high schools in Nipomo on Monday for a scheduled Q&A sessions with students, sharing his background and upbringing while providing an overview of his activities as a first-term congressman.
Emigrating from Mexico at 5-years-old, Carbajal said he and his family originally moved to Arizona before settling in Oxnard. While his father worked on a farm, his mother (who had rheumatoid arthritis) stayed home with Carbajal and his six older siblings. Struggling economically for the better part of a year, Carbajal said his family experienced some relief after moving into public housing.
"It wasn't uncommon for me to wake up to see that somebody overdosed in my neighborhood or violence somewhere or another," he said, adding that his parents tried to steer him away from that lifestyle.
In addition to his parents, Carbajal credits his teachers and counselors with recognizing his potential and supporting his desire to pursue higher education. After accepting an offer of admission to UCSB, Carbajal was faced with financing his future -- a task he accomplished through a combination of grant money, loans and supplemental sources of financial assistance.
According to Carbajal, his experience with the federal financial aid process has influenced his legislative priorities for the current term.
"One of my priorities is to provide more financial aid opportunities for students wishing to seek a higher education," he said. "I've introduced legislation to increase Pell Grant availability for students, and to allow borrowers to restructure and refinance student loan debt."
Central Coast New Tech High School students Riley Whitmer and Delenn Liebmann said Carbajal's candor and openness regarding the details of his upbringing were refreshing, and related highly to his story.
"I thought it was great hearing him talk about growing up without that many resources because I come from a really low-income family too," said Whitmer, a junior. "To be able to see that he came from that background and climb really far up based on determination, I thought it was really amazing and inspiring."
Liebmann, a college-bound senior, related most to his talk about pursuing and attaining higher education without substantial resources.
"Admitting he had help in pursuing education made it seem normal -- like it's not so bad," she said. "I really like that he didn't try to hide it."
"I love sharing my experience and background because I'm very proud of who I am," Carbajal said. "If anyone shares a similar story or has faced similar obstacles, I want them to know that it's OK to go through those challenges. The goal is to get through those obstacles and challenges, and not let them beat you down."
After leaving New Tech for Nipomo High School, Carbajal received a tour of campus from school administrators during lunch. Sophomore Raven Regnier was initially apprehensive to approach Carbajal as he first walked into the library but, eventually, worked up the will to introduce herself.
"I saw his commercials and remember his campaign," Regnier recalled, explaining that many of her peers weren't too familiar with his work in Congress. She credits the confusion and uncertainty regarding his work with a lack of political understanding outside of the national stage.
"Most students don't know who he is because they don't really know about their current government outside of the national stage," she said. "I feel like government should be taught both years, not just senior year, to allow students to become more familiar with their local, state and federal representatives."
While others may have been dismayed at the students' uncertainty, Carbajal touted their willingness to learn as the most inspiring part of his visit.
"Students have a genuine interest in understanding their government," he said. "The thirst for knowledge that I've seen is very inspiring."