It would have surprised no one if Sugeli Flores had drifted into a dead-end life: She grew up in a tough neighborhood, in a household where formal education didn't go beyond grade school. And she was drawn early toward gang life.
Yet, unlike many of her childhood friends, Flores made the decision as a teenager not to drift--but to learn and lead. At 20, she is a high-achieving student at Cypress College, with plans to move to a four-year university next year.
But the aspiring teacher hasn't forgotten how difficult it can be to find direction in one's life. That's why, squeezed between studies and two part-time jobs, Flores devotes herself to helping other Latinos enroll in college--and stay there.
"She's a leader," said Enriqueta Ramos, a Chicano studies professor at Cypress who has helped guide Flores' studies. "She's going to lead all her life."
At the house in Anaheim where her parents moved when Flores was in the fifth grade, the community activist and mentor described her work.
"My goal is to motivate students to pursue a higher education," she said. "I want to educate them about civil rights and the Chicano movement, which was started by high school students. It made a big difference when I learned that 30 years ago, students just like me had to fight for an education. History has motivated me."
It is difficult to reconcile the image of Flores today with her description of herself from her days as a kid in Los Angeles and as a girl in Orange County.
Back then, Flores said, she went by the nickname "Giggles" and wore the uniform of a gang wannabe: heavy makeup, big hair and a bad attitude. With a pen, she doodled signs and slogans onto the backs of her hands. "All through junior high school I affiliated with an L.A. gang," she recalled.
Then a good friend from the old Pico Union neighborhood in L.A. was shot to death. Flores winces at the memory.
"A lot of the gang involvement had to do with la raza, my people," she said. "I started wondering how we can be promoting our own people, having pride, when we're killing each other. I just kept thinking about my friend who died. I think, more than anything, that was what turned me around."
In 11th grade, Flores began to funnel her energy into more constructive tasks, first as a chapter leader of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano Aztlan, known as MEChA, then as a mentor to other students.
"People wouldn't take me seriously at first, because it was such a change," said Flores, who maintains a 3.8 grade-point average at Cypress College. "I had to keep working at it to convince them."
Now, besides working as a bilingual teacher's aide at Anaheim's Baden Powell Elementary School and managing a Wienerschnitzel eatery, Flores is director of activities for the campus MEChA chapter. She also is a mentor to two high school and four college students through a program called Puente, Spanish for "bridge," which seeks to put more Latinos on a path to higher education.
Last spring and fall, Flores organized daylong conferences to introduce Latino high school students to the Cypress campus and to college in general. At each conference, Latino professionals described their backgrounds and difficulties they encountered.
The high school and community college dropout rate among Latinos is higher than average. Reasons range from financial pressures to a lack of expectations at home, said Flores, who hopes to lower the rate by providing both information and inspiration.
That the November function went off without a hitch impressed veteran organizers such as Ramos, but--rather than sit back and take credit--Flores spent the following weeks critiquing the event. "We only had 50 students, even though I know a lot more wanted to come," she said. "Next time, I'll have to work on transportation."
The second of four children, Flores watched her parents--a mechanic's assistant and a factory worker--struggle to create a healthy and safe environment for their children. Originally from Jalisco state in Mexico, her parents lived in Los Angeles--where Flores was born--before moving to Anaheim.
The new neighborhood was safer, Flores said, but it was a jolt.
"All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who spoke English," she recalled. "It was a real culture shock but probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I always ask myself, if I still lived in [the old] neighborhood, would I have made it? The truth is, I'll never know."
The first in her family to attend college, Flores said she is more fortunate than many in having parents who support her professional ambitions. Many young women in immigrant homes are held to lower educational and vocational standards than their brothers, she said. For that reason, she has chosen to mentor primarily young women.
"She tells you how it is," said Yvette Barragan, 16, a sophomore at Savanna High School in Anaheim who chose Flores as a mentor after hearing her speak. "She explains how to get into college and gives you ideas for stuff like financial aid. She makes you want to go forward."
Ramos, Flores' mentor in Puente, said it is the young woman's ambition that sets her apart.
"I have many, many mentees, but with her, it was very different from the start," Ramos said. "She was there all the time, using my office, going through reference books. She was helping other students write their papers, acting like a mentor herself.
"When you see a student like that, being so responsible at such a young age, it really impresses you. It's been a joy to see her blossoming."