Ernesto Gritzewsky would have simply been another statistic had things transpired differently.
"I was the first in my family to go to college," he said. "You know what happened? I got scared and started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I started drinking, I started partying ... and got put on academic probation. I was the first person in my family to go to college only to become another Latino statistic: a dropout."
Standing alone onstage, Gritzewsky continued to open up about his background. His pace grew faster and voice more frantic as he talked about the lowest point of his life. It was the early ’90s and he had just been dismissed from Loyola Marymount University, $26,000 in debt for a degree he didn't have.
Unemployed and living at home, Gritzewsky was arrested for drunken driving and later totaled his car. His girlfriend broke up with him. His mother, a Mexican migrant who came to the United States so he could get an education, was beyond angry with him for abandoning his dream of obtaining a college education.
"I've never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but that was my rock bottom," he said. Four days later, his aunt Rose, who he described as one of the pillars of his family, died.
"I'll never stop regretting that I didn't visit my aunt."
One degree and 25 years later, Gritzewsky, a motivational speaker and comedian who performs under the name of Ernie G, was one of several speakers at the annual Young Educated LatinX Leaders (YELL) Conference on Friday at Hancock College in Santa Maria. Speaking in front of nearly 500 Latino students from northern Santa Barbara County, Gritzewsky's speech and performance drew a constant stream of cheers and applause.
"Students get excited to see a people that look like themselves in positions of power," Yvonne Teniente, dean of Student Services at Hancock, said of the conference. "They're professors, entertainers, business owners and engineers. They get to see that if we can do it, they can do it themselves."
Over the last 10 years, the conference evolved from a group of community members who wanted to mentor Latino youth into an annual program that routinely draws hundreds of attendees. Featuring workshops and sessions on topics of community and national importance, Teniente said the program was designed to teach students how to be an advocate for themselves and a leader in their community.
"You've got to get educated to change the community and make it better," she said. "We want to tell students, 'We're glad you're here. We value you, we want you here.'"
Like Gritzewsky, Victor Rios, professor of sociology at UCSB, told the students that his path to success would have been impossible without pursuing and completing his education. An East Oakland native, Rios remembered growing up amid gangs, drugs and violence. He dropped out twice — once in eighth grade and again when he first tried to finish high school — before joining a gang for protection at the age of 14.
After witnessing his friend die during a gang-related shooting, Rios turned his attention to education. He was admitted to Cal State East Bay in Hayward and later completed his doctorate at UC Berkeley. Now an acclaimed sociologist and juvenile justice researcher, Rios reminded students to think beyond the classroom when making decisions about their education.
"Getting an education isn't some teacher telling you that college is good for you," he said. "It's about you helping yourself, helping your family and being a leader in your community."
Adding that education is a "day-to-day struggle." Rios told the students to learn that the struggle is the building block to their success.
"If you have obstacles, you can either be someone that gets broken by those obstacles or become a record-breaker. Obstacles make some people break but make others break records."