In junior high, Alex Ojeda hung around with the gang bangers.
By high school he was getting into trouble with the law. By the time he got kicked out of his second high school, he knew something had to change. He just wasn’t sure how to start.
“I became interested in this romanticization of gang life,” he said. “The guys who everyone respected. They had the cool clothes, the girls, all of that.”
This semester, Ojeda will graduate from CSUN with a master’s degree in Chicano Studies. His path to graduating has taken him on some unlikely twists and turns, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When he first started out on this journey in high school, his success didn’t seem so assured.
During his adolescent years, he was looking for somewhere to feel he belonged. He wanted a way to define himself and where he came from.
The first place he said he ever felt successful was in art classes. While at Monroe High, his third high school, he enrolled in mural painting and calligraphy. After some ups and downs, Ojeda discovered he had a knack for painting murals.
Soon, he became the go-to guy when anyone needed artistic work done around the school.
Despite his success in artistic endeavors, Ojeda was still lagging behind in academics. One day, his economics teacher pulled him aside and told the young man he was not going to graduate. Ojeda was failing Mr. Gutierrez’s class, a core subject required for graduation. Luckily, the teacher allowed him to make up the work by doing a special project.
“I’ll never forget it. It was a research project on the history of Guess jeans,” Ojeda said.
He made it out of high school with a “C” in economics but with little idea about what to do next. He knew where he did not want to end up.
“In jail or in the cemetery,” he said.
At 20 years old, Ojeda stumbled upon a local Mesoamerican cultural group, Tloqueh Nahuaque. He learned about the history of his people, their struggles and the beauty of their culture. He had found where he belonged and learned about where he had come from. Now, he had to figure out his role in this world, in life.
“Education is the key,” he said.
Ojeda enrolled in classes at Mission Community College. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, so he took as many classes as he could in everything that sounded interesting to him. He left there with two associate’s degrees: one in liberal studies and another in Chicano/a studies. He thought he might want to teach elementary school and transferred to CSUN as a liberal studies major to fulfill that goal.
Then he found the sociology department’s MOSAIC mentoring program, where he currently serves as director.
Ojeda started as a mentor in his second semester at CSUN. Through the “Mentoring to Overcome Struggles And Inspire Courage” program he worked with high school kids who were in the same place he had been not so long ago. Most of the students MOSAIC works with are young Latino kids who have fallen through the cracks. Kids, like Ojeda once was, who needed somewhere to belong, something to believe in.
After four semesters as a mentor, Ojeda realized he might have to rethink his original plan to work with elementary-aged children. His talents seemed best suited helping the lost teenagers shuffled through the school system, altering their trajectory toward the jail or the cemetery.
Knowing he wanted to get into education, Ojeda asked then-director of the MOSAIC program Professor Teresa Madden, if he could help her teach the class that goes along with the mentoring program. She encouraged him to use his talents in art while co-instructing. Through her encouragement and the support of the sociology department, Ojeda began to incorporate things like hip-hop music, graffiti art and poetry into the curriculum.
By the time Ojeda was ready to pursue his master’s degree, Madden was ready to let him take over as the new director of MOSAIC. Though their federal grant money has been reallocated, Ojeda has kept the program going strong at four local continuation high schools.
“A lot of adults have failed them,” said Maxine Amondo, a recent CSUN graduate and MOSAIC mentor. “I don’t know any student at a continuing high school who hasn’t been told they’re stupid or worthless. The students really look up to Alex. He’s been an amazing resource for us.”
Ojeda’s journey came full circle when he bumped into an old friend in the Chicano/a studies department. Mr. Gutierrez is now Dr. Gutierrez, and he no longer teaches high school economics. Ojeda has been experimenting with creative ways to engage kids with learning in Gutierrez’s “Diversity and Equity in Education” course.
Gutierrez remembered Ojeda back in high school as the typical teenager.
“Alex was very intelligent, but he was using that intelligence to mostly get out of trouble,” Gutierrez said.
These days, Ojeda is using his intelligence and creativity to develop new ways to engage students in their education. Through games, art and discussion groups, he’s working hard to ensure they have the opportunities he never even knew were out there.
Ojeda said he doesn’t have any regrets because he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t made those mistakes in the past.
“I always tell the kids, failure is temporary. You just have to get up and keep going,” he said.