Cathy Summa-Wolfe, Director
Communications & Community Relations
El Salvadoran student credits son for inspiring his college career
Zamora, the youngest of 17, is the first to finish high school, attend college
KENTFIELD, Calif., May 19, 2009—On the long journey from an impoverished life in El Salvador to his graduation from College of Marin and transfer this fall to UC Berkeley, no one has inspired Jose Zamora to excel as much as his son.
“I give credit to my son,” Zamora said. “He’s the one who pushed me to come back to school and I didn’t hesitate. It was one week after the semester started in the fall of 2007.”
Zamora, 38, the 17th child of a single mother in El Salvador, will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture. He plans to eventually become a teacher. Coincidentally, his son, Javier, who encouraged him to return to college after a long hiatus, will also be studying at UCB, majoring in Latin American Studies and English.
“This is the American story,” said Hank Fearnley, a COM Political Science professor. “There’s no stopping him. He could do well beyond that if wanted to. He has the drive. He has the motivation and he has the intellect. This is something we have to celebrate.”
In El Salvador, the options were not as bright. Zamora’s mother worked in the fields for many years as did the children. Zamora had a proficiency in math and tutored other students. He worked as a bookkeeper. Before graduating from high school, he was married with a son and working as an accountant in San Luis La Herradura, a city in central El Salvador. He was the first in his family to graduate high school, but, even a full-time job earned him only $55 per week.
“I was still going to school and making my life even more miserable trying to support two families,” he recalled. “I faced the reality and decided to leave the country.”
It took him six months to get to the U.S. but in 1992, he landed in Los Angeles where a sister lived and began working long hours in construction and sending money home. He received a work permit and eventually moved to San Rafael to live with a sister where he continued to work 14- and 16-hour days.
“I had a dictionary in my pocket all the time so I could practice some English,” he said.
In 1994, Zamora knew he wanted to go to college but his boss only laughed at his request for shorter hours and insulted him. The experience, however, turned into a blessing. “He basically treated me as ignorant so I quit and took the challenge. It just opened my eyes.”
And, doors opened. Zamora met a landscape architect who helped him learn the trade and encouraged him to enroll in College of Marin. In the spring of 1995, Zamora began intermediate ESL classes after his long work day and eventually began studying environmental landscaping. He continued school until his family moved to town and he felt new responsibilities such as re-establishing his relationship with his young son who was struggling in school.
“I told him at some point I wanted to go to school but my first priority was him,” Zamora said. “I wanted to make sure he went to college and after that I would focus on my life.” Zamora began coaching his son’s soccer teams.
“He likes soccer and I love soccer so I used that as a bridge to get closer to him,” Zamora said.
Javier earned a soccer scholarship to a local private school and Zamora was soon working as assistant coach on the school team. In the fall of 2007, when Javier was a senior, he told his dad it was time for him to go back to College of Marin.
Walter Turner, Professor of Social Sciences and Contemporary African Affairs, remembered Zamora as one of his most questioning students,” Turner said. “You could see he’d gone over his work two, three, four times to make sure it was as close to perfect as possible. I was blessed he was in my class and I got to play a role with him.”
The following year, Zamora earned an associate in science degree in Environmental Landscaping and Design and another door opened. By chance, he met a transfer counselor from UC Berkeley, who prodded him into considering transferring to UCB. Until then, Zamora had planned his education class by class, focusing on learning more about landscaping rather than earning a degree.
“I told him I didn’t think I had a shot, but he encouraged me to apply.”
Zamora was one of two students selected this year for the Phi Theta Kappa All-California Academic Team, an honor based on his exceptional academic rigor and grade point averages; participation in honors programs; awards, honors, and recognition for academic achievement; and service to the college and community.
He works independently as a landscaper while finishing up his classes including a concurrent environmental design course at UCB. Zamora, who has received scholarships from the College of Marin Foundation, will receive an associate in arts degree in May.
“I never dreamed of that to be honest with you,” Zamora said. “In the last two years, ever since I came back to College of Marin, I felt like more doors opened for me. Everyone has been supportive, beginning from the staff to all of the teachers. All they’ve done is encourage me to stay in school.
“That’s the main reason I want to become a teacher,” Zamora said. “Their passion for teaching is not just about knowledge. You have to love your students and love your subject to me they stand up beyond everyone else. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.”
COM’s 82nd Commencement will take place on Saturday, May 23, at 10 a.m. in the Harlan Center Quad Area, 835 College Ave., Kentfield, CA. Of the approximately 323 students receiving degrees and certificates this year, about 120 students will participate in the formal ceremony. The youngest graduate is a student from San Rafael who is 14 and the oldest is James Coyle of Mill Valley who is 69 years old. The total number of associate in arts degrees conferred is 183, the total number of associate in science degrees is 94, and the total number of certificates is 46.
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