Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Student success: Hermilo Mejia an inspiration to other immigrants

Hemilo Mejia

Hermilo Mejia first came to the Grossmont College to improve his English. Now he’s about to earn a certificate in landscape architecture and an associate degree in ornamental horticulture from Cuyamaca College.

Transferring to a four-year college or university is among the options he’s contemplating.

“It’s hard to keep studying all the time while you’re working, but I’m going to keep going,” said the 46-year-old El Cajon resident who is employed as a gardener and landscape architect. “I would love to transfer to a four-year program and become a civil engineer.”

Mejia’s dedication to learning landed him a $1,000 scholarship from the Institute for Mexicans Abroad during a Feb. 7 celebration at Grossmont College. The award was just the latest reason for him to praise the East County community colleges.

“Both Grossmont College and Cuyamaca College have helped me so much,” Mejia said. “They have changed my life.”

Mejia’s odyssey has been dominated by perseverance, and now he is determined to serve as an inspiration to others. He was born and raised in an isolated town in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that had no electricity, no running water and no roads. “It did have an elementary school, but it was not very good,” Mejia said.

At least it was free; Mejia had to work at various jobs to pay for his schooling beyond elementary school. He ultimately immigrated to the U.S., worked as a laborer picking everything from strawberries to tomatoes, settled in El Cajon and became a gardener.

“I had been here for several years and I wanted to learn English, because if you are living in this country and you are not learning English, that’s not right,” he said.

He enrolled in a series of English as a second language courses at an adult high school, until an instructor offered advice that would change his life.

“After a few years, one of my teachers told me it’s time to move on,” Mejia recalled. “She pushed me to go to college. I said, `College? I can’t go to college.’ But then I realized that learning was making me happy, so I went to Grossmont College to take more English classes.”

When gardening clients began asking him to sketch some landscape designs, Mejia enrolled at Cuyamaca College’s Ornamental Horticulture program. “The teachers and professors are excellent,” Mejia said. “Whenever I have a question or a problem with any subject, any class, they are always there to help.”

Mejia says his scholarship will be invaluable in helping him reach his educational goals. The Institute for Mexicans Abroad is an agency of the Mexican government’s Foreign Ministry, and the scholarship is awarded to promising low-income, Mexican and Mexican-Americans students living in the United States who demonstrate leadership or service benefitting the Mexican immigrant population.

“My clients are surprised, but delighted, to learn that their gardener is going to school and improving his life,” Mejia said.

Now he wants to help improve the lives of others like him. He says he wants to teach immigrants here or Mexicans back home so that they, too, can succeed.

“I understand from personal experience how there are many smart but poor students who can be inspired by someone who has gone to the U.S., learned English, worked hard, supported himself and gotten a real education,” he said.