Cuyamaca College employee Eddie Vasquez first read Nobel laureate and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writings at age 14.
Now 25, the student services specialist will depart in July for a one-year, all-expenses paid stay to work and study as a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia, the birthplace of the author whose seminal work, “100 Years of Solitude,” is considered a classic piece of modern literature.
“It forever changed my life,” Vasquez said about his introduction to the novelist’s writings in an honors Spanish class. It was, he said, the first time he could relate to a book’s Latino characters.
Vasquez’s interest in Colombia stemmed from his fascination with the novelist, as well as the figurative paintings and sculptures of Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero.
“These two artists have been instrumental in my appreciation of art and life itself and I wanted to gain a deeper context of their cultural upbringing while being an ambassador to the U.S. and California,” said Vasquez, a Mexican-American who is fluent in English and Spanish and conversational in French and Italian.
On April 21 – just four days after Garcia Marquez’s death in Mexico City – Vasquez learned he has been selected for the prestigious Fulbright grant to be an English teaching assistant in Bucaramanga, a city of about half-million people in the Colombian Andes. In addition to his work and study, Vasquez plans to pursue his passion for the performing arts through directing community theater as a participant in the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government.
With plans to return to Cuyamaca College with a master’s degree that he aspires to acquire in educational administration during his time in Colombia, Vasquez said his Fulbright experience will provide a deeper understanding of Title V, the federal education code relating to expanding educational opportunities for Hispanic students by assisting Hispanic-Serving Institutions such as Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges.
As the student services specialist at Cuyamaca’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services Office, as well as adviser for the LGBTA and EOPS clubs, Vasquez said he hopes that upon his return, the students he engages with through his work are inspired to expand their educational horizons.
‘My international experience will prompt my current students to begin thinking of their study abroad possibilities once they transfer and will allow me to be an even better club advisor for both of my student clubs,” he said.
College President Mark J. Zacovic said Vasquez’s contributions to the campus have been “tremendous” and he looks forward to his return from Colombia as an even better mentor to students and others. Vasquez also plays a key role as the Cuyamaca vice president in the Classified Senate, an organization that represents the needs, concerns and viewpoints of the classified, or non-instructional, staff.
“Eddie has been at the college for only a little over a year and yet his presence is very evident from all the good things he has done,” Zacovic said. “I am very proud of his accomplishments and I know the students he works with on a regular basis regard him as a role model – someone who has overcome similar challenges to achieve much in his educational and professional endeavors.”
A disadvantaged childhood
Born in Anaheim, California, Vasquez was raised in a single-parent household in the South San Diego community of Nestor, along with four siblings.
“We were raised by humble means, receiving food stamps and welfare, in a low-cost apartment complex where it was not uncommon to hear gunshots or see drug and alcohol abuse,” Vasquez said. “The odds were against me. The Nestor area hosts much gang-related violence. I had to choose whether I wanted to live the street life or the life an academic. I chose the latter.”
The first male in his family with a university degree, Vasquez credits his older sister for setting an example, and his mother, who taught her children from a very young age the value of an education.
“My sister has received her B.S. in business from Cal State San Marcos and my younger brother has received an automotive certificate from Southwestern College,” he said. “My mother taught me the value of education and I clung on to it as if my life depended on it because my life did depend on it.”
After graduating from Montgomery High School, Vasquez received scholarships and financial aid to attend San Diego State University. Vasquez applied for the Fulbright grant last September under the auspices of SDSU, where he received his bachelor’s in comparative literature. The application, which took him about three months to complete, was followed by two interviews before the local Fulbright committee at SDSU and a second before the one from Colombia.
The Fulbright Program awards approximately 8,000 grants annually. Roughly 1,600 U.S. students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 U.S. scholars, and 900 visiting scholars receive awards, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals.
Approximately 310,000 Fulbrighters have participated in the program since its inception in 1946.
Vasquez said he is “extremely happy and proud” about his Fulbright acceptance, adding that he is grateful for the support he has received from his family and the college district for its encouragement to classified employees to reach their educational and professional aspirations.
Vasquez recites a quote from Garcia Marquez to sum up his own sentiments about his journey ahead.
“I discovered to my joy, that it is life, not death that has no limits.”