My guest today is Ernesto Velázquez. Ernesto was raised by working-class, immigrant parents in Southern California. His parents communicated that college was an expectation from an early age, mostly due to extended family who had set the example for college. Ernesto was used to doing well academically in high school but found that he struggled with his coursework during his first year of college. He eventually came to understood that the problem wasn’t his ability but instead a lack of interest in the classes he was taking which didn’t tap into his intrinsic curiosity about the world. Once he found a major that excited him, he was able to perform to his potential. Ernesto received his Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Stanford University and he went on to receive his J.D. from Columbia Law School. As Ernesto advanced in higher education and the legal profession, he often felt isolated and different due to his identity as a First Gen college student and Latino. He found that focusing on his past success, choosing his battles, creating community, and finding mentors were crucial to having a positive experience. Ernesto worked at a top tier corporate law firm for 5 years after law school. Ernesto is currently a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles. Here is a little of his First Gen Journey . . .
In this episode, Dr. Hernandez interviews Ernesto Velázquez, Deputy City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles, about his First Gen Journey. He discusses struggling with coursework before leaning in to his interests, navigating law school and the legal profession while feeling different, and the lessons he has learned along the way. Here are a few highlights from his episode:
· Ernesto’s father worked in a factory and his mother was a homemaker until she started working in the school system as a cafeteria worker. Growing up, there was always the expectation that Ernesto would go to college; it was a matter of where he was going to go to college not if. This was mostly due to extended family members who had college experience. Ernesto expressed gratitude that his parents did not limit him geographically when it came time to apply to college (3:13).
· Despite the encouragement Ernesto received regarding attending college, he still felt as if he didn’t have many professional models growing up (4:09). He noted that he was really just exposed to the professions of teacher, doctor, and lawyer. He recognized that in some ways not being pushed toward any path was freeing because he could study whatever interested him.
· Ernesto thinks of his time in college as two distinct periods. The first year he struggled with finding his rhythm and figuring out what to study. Once he leaned in to his interests and found a major that fit, he was able to flourish and have a fulfilling experience (5:54). He believes it took being honest with himself and asking ‘What do I enjoy? How do I spend my free time? What are my interests? How can I put them together through an academic lens?’ For Ernesto, it was politics, economics, journalism, current events, etc.
· That first year of college, Ernesto struggled with his coursework because he wasn’t interested in the material. He was used to getting certain grades so the reality of his situation was hard to manage. Luckily, Ernesto was able to recognize that there was something that wasn’t right about the situation instead of internalizing the problem and having it affect his self-esteem (9:40).
· Ernesto decided to major in International Relations because it included all the subject matters he was intrinsically motivated to learn about (12:35). Although he felt more secure in his major choice, he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue as a career. He decided to apply to law school as the next step of his journey because he was fascinated by the subject matter and he believed it would likely lead to financial security (14:55). Ernesto stated that the process of applying to and attending law school was a much more intentional and strategic process. He was aware of the sacrifices he would need to make and the way he would need to structure his career to have the freedom and flexibility to use his education in a way that felt sustainable and fulfilling (19:36).
· In law school, Ernesto struggled more with the social and environmental difficulties of being first-generation college and Latino than he did with the academic work (20:09). Ernesto relied on the academic confidence he built over the years in higher education to help remind him of his successes and capabilities. He also focused on building community to offset the sense of isolation. One last strategy was being able to ‘pick his battles’ and realize that he can’t challenge every instance of ignorance or prejudice because ultimately he would suffer the consequences.
· Ernesto came to realize that the higher he got in education and in his career, the less likely he would be in settings where he saw himself and his background represented (25:28). He noted that it doesn’t get easier but it does get less jarring over time. While there were some challenges with having his ethnicity be his main identifier in professional settings, Ernesto was able to have a balanced perspective on his experience. Developing relationships with mentors was crucial to being able to absorb the unpleasant situations while also being aware of the positives of certain environments (29:44). He has also learned to fully own his background and ethnic identity in professional settings (32:28). He commented that he wants to be accepted for who he is in professional settings so that he can create genuine bonds with others instead of having to hide parts of himself.
Ernesto’s tips for First Gen students and professionals wanting to go into the legal field:
1. Be aware of both the counselor role and adversarial role that can be present in a legal profession. Take some time to really understand what the profession entails and determine whether that fits with your personality.
2. In general, law school points you toward a career in litigation. If that is not what you are interested in, seek opportunities and information about other career paths in the law.