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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

From gangs to soon-to-be graduate: A success story

October 13, 2014

SJVC Industrial Technology Student Angel SunigaIn a town where 30 percent of the population is involved in gang-related activities, it is easy for youth to get off to a bad start. Angel Suniga was one of those in the San Fernando town of Pacoima on a path to self-destruction. At 18 years old, his affiliation and subsequent “wrong place at the wrong time” landed him in prison.

Just before Angel’s release, his mom, Teri, relocated with his younger sister, Alene, to Lancaster, Calif., so that they could all have a chance for a better life.

There was an even bigger change for Angel than geography. He had a new determination to improve his life and leave his past behind. He worked his way through several jobs, always upward, until he settled into providing home inspections within the real estate industry for the last several years.

At 38, Angel switched gears.

Industrial technology (IT) was an interesting field to Angel. “I’m a real hands-on guy and want to take things apart and put them back together again,” he says. SJVC’s IT program in Lancaster hit all the hot spots for him.

Angel attended an Industrial Technology Open House in July last year and felt the connection immediately. But his hopes dropped when he realized that ‘no felony convictions’ was one of the enrollment restrictions. Campus Director, Joel Morgan, explained to Angel that Career Services has a difficult time helping graduates with a felony find externships and employment. Angel was willing to take his chances finding employment, without that safety net. He tried to explain his situation to Mr. Morgan.

“When I was young, I made bad choices in a bad environment,” he said. “At 26, I started my new life; I’m married now and have a family; all I’m asking for is [you] to give me a shot.”

Student life has not been easy for Angel. It is not because he struggles academically – Angel maintains a 4.0 GPA and has earned 10 Academic Excellence Awards. It is the tight time schedule. He works full-time and commutes 90 miles round-trip, three to four days a week, while he balances school, homework and time with family. But, Teri and Angel’s wife, Flora, and their five children give him the love, support and strength he needs to keep going.

“I knew when I started that it was going to be rough; but it was rough before, so what’s a little more rough?” asks Angel. “For me, my motto is ‘I’ll struggle today for a better tomorrow.'”

Angel is in his element in the IT program. “I am the oldest of the group (of classmates) and they call me ‘the overachiever,'” he laughs. “Some are just out of high school, so I explain to them that, at my age, I only have one shot at this.”

“I’m really crafty with my hands,” says Angel. “Give me five things and I’ll find a way to make them work together. The program has power transmissions, gears, hydraulics, electrical, PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers), and I can see myself doing this kind of job.”

An Industrial Electricity project challenged IT students to put components together, draw a schematic (blueprint) for approval, then do an installation. Instructor and IT Program Director, Jeff Smeltz, was pretty impressed with Angel’s work and keeps a close eye on his progress. “Once in awhile, Jeff asks me, ‘You still got your 4.0?,’ says Angel. “Now, here I am down to the last classes, and I still have my 4.0 – and the confidence I’ll keep that.”

“Angel has gone above and beyond to carry a 4.0 and help his fellow classmates along the way,” says Jeff Smeltz. “He is someone we should all look up to as an example of dedication and perseverance.”

Angel knows he has come a long way from that 18-year-old boy who looked in the wrong direction for a future. He has been part of a group of ex-gang members that has gone to youth detention centers to talk to kids about making a change in their choices.

“I look out there and see a young version of myself,” says Angel. “You see kids that are open to listen and other kids who look at you like, ‘you’re full of it.’ That life kills your spirit, but that’s all they have and they can’t realize that there’s a big world out there, not just your neighborhood.”

Angel’s new life is the best example of what he tries to tell these kids.

“I left that path behind years ago, and I’m not that person anymore,” he says. “Change is possible.”

SJVC is gratified to have been part of that change.

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