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Gang Member-Turned-Ph.D. Mentors Youth on the Fringes

February 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Victor Rios says he has lived two lifetimes. In his first, he was a gang member, juvenile delinquent and high school dropout. Now, he's a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who tries to help adolescents avoid the same mistakes he made and get second chances like he did. Ray Suarez reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, another in our series on the nation’s high school dropout crisis — tonight: one man’s journey from gang member and dropout to professor and his efforts to keep other young men from making his mistakes.

Ray Suarez has our American Graduate story.

VICTOR RIOS, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara: My name is Victor Rios. In 1994, this was me. I was introduced to the nation in a “Frontline” documentary. I was a gang member, a juvenile delinquent, and a high school dropout.

RAY SUAREZ: But in the 18 years that followed, Victor Rios earned his high school diploma, finished college, earned a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and wrote two books on his life and his research on juvenile delinquency. He now teaches sociology at U.C. Santa Barbara and helps at-risk youth navigate the perils of adolescence.

Rios is also a family man with a wife, Rebecca, and three children. Life is constantly busy.

VICTOR RIOS: To be this far into this future, I feel like I have lived two lifetimes.

One day, my little cousin, he was sleeping in his crib, and we had rats. So, big rats crawled on his crib and began to chew his face up, his lips, his gums, his cheeks. He was hospitalized for months, and his face had to be reconstructed. This is the kind of dire poverty we lived in.Victor Rios, University of California, Santa Barbara

RAY SUAREZ: Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. with his mother at the age of 2, and was raised on the rough streets of Oakland. His mother found menial work, and the family barely scraped by, living in some of the city’s most notorious projects.

VICTOR RIOS: So, we ended up in some of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, and we had to face some of the violence, poverty, dilapidated housing.

For example, one day, my little cousin, he was sleeping in his crib, and we had rats. So, big rats crawled on his crib and began to chew his face up, his lips, his gums, his cheeks. He was hospitalized for months, and his face had to be reconstructed. And so this is the kind of dire poverty we lived in.

RAY SUAREZ: That dire poverty led Rios to drop out for the first time in eighth grade. He secretly mowed lawns to help his mother pay the bills, but she found out and made him return to class.

Not long after, at 14, Rios joined a neighborhood gang for protection from the violence of the streets around him. Gang life, coupled with bad relationships with teachers and other authority figures, eventually led him to drop out of school again.

VICTOR RIOS: The gang was influencing my thoughts about school, because our whole day was organized around, number one, surviving. And school didn’t provide us the resources to survive.

RAY SUAREZ: Life on the streets became increasingly dangerous. Rios left home and was stealing cars, sometimes living in them for months at a time. And when he was 15, his best friend, a fellow gang member they called Smiley, was murdered during a fight with their rivals.

VICTOR RIOS: Smiley’s death changed my life around, in that I began to reflect. I began to think about what can happen to me. I began to think about facing hard time in prison if I continued on this path, like many of my friends, or ending up dead like Smiley.

RAY SUAREZ: Rios says it was at this crucial moment, the point when he was ready to make a change in life, that one adult was there for him.

It was a teacher. Her name was Ms. Russ.

VICTOR RIOS: She walks up to me. She says, “Victor, are you OK? I heard what happened.”

And I told her, “Yeah, I’m okay.” But she didn’t believe me. She tapped me on the shoulder. She said, “I know you aren’t okay.” And I began to cry like a little kid in front of the whole school.

The teacher reached out, opened her arms, gave me a hug and said, “Victor, when you are ready to change your life around, I will be here for you, but you have to do the work.”

RAY SUAREZ: With the help of mentors, Rios says he began making a slow transformation. But the lure of the street life was still there, haunting him on a daily basis.

VICTOR RIOS: One day, I’m on the other side of town, and I pick a fight on the street in front of a school, a rival school. And a police officer came by and stopped us, handcuffed me.

I was on probation, and he knew this. He got me in the back of the car. And he said, “I could arrest you and you could go to jail for a long time.”

I told him, “Officer, I’m trying to change my life around.”

He started talking to me. He said, “Listen, kid, I’m going to give you one more chance. But if I see you around here again, I’m going to take you in for a long time.”

I respected my deal with him.

RAY SUAREZ: It was that deal that helped get him on the path to a high school diploma, then to college and eventually a doctorate.

VICTOR RIOS: I don’t think they realize today how important their second chance for me was. At the time, it was important for me to hear an adult tell me, listen, we know you are a mess-up, we know you have been to juvie, we know you are caught up on the streets, we know you are a dropout, but we still believe in you.

And they gave me that dignity, and I ran with it, and I’m still running.

RAY SUAREZ: Even now, Rios is navigating between two worlds on most days. He juggles his duties as a college professor and high school researcher, all the while studying and mentoring at-risk young men in Santa Barbara.

MIGUEL, 19: My name is Miguel. I am 19 years old. I was born and raised in Santa Barbara. And I have been labeled as a gang member down here. If I hadn’t met Dr. Rios, I think — I honestly think I would have probably been in jail by now.

RAY SUAREZ: Miguel asked us not to use his last name. He first met Professor Rios about two years ago, when he took part in a sociology study.

MIGUEL: I felt like I can relate to him, like so he knew what we were about, you know, and he knows where we come from. He knows how to come at us, you know, at what level of respect to come at us.

RAY SUAREZ: Miguel’s two older brothers were in gangs. He had his first interaction with the juvenile justice system at the age of 12, after he stole a bike.

Miguel never really liked going to class, and eventually left school for good without a high school diploma. Now that he’s joined Rios’ program, though, Miguel now aims to complete his GED and hopes to one day become a mechanic.

VICTOR RIOS: I have seen Miguel grow over the last couple years. I’ve seen him become a leader in the community.

RAY SUAREZ: Miguel knows he’s still a work in progress.

MIGUEL: I mean, it’s not — I’m not going to go to sleep the devil one night and wake up the next day and have wings. I mean, everyone has got room for change for the better, you know? And I’m still young, so I got a lot of room for changing.

RAY SUAREZ: And he’s encouraging others to do the same. Miguel is now helping his friend Hector, a 15 year-old sophomore, avoid the mistakes he made.

HECTOR GUTIERREZ, 15: He’s had my back. I’ve had his back. He’s, like, helped me out a lot. He encourages me, tells me to stay in school, and just get it over with. It will help me out in the future. I trust him.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a pay-it-forward strategy that Victor Rios, the gang-member-turned-university-professor, still can’t believe he put in motion.

VICTOR RIOS: If, during the time I was on the street as a teenager, someone approached me, an angel came to me and said, hey, hang in there, man, because, when you’re 34, you are going to have a beautiful family, a wonderful household, a great job, you are going to be a Ph.D. from Berkeley, you’re going to have written two books, and you will be an award-winning professor, I would have laughed and laughed.

So now it’s my job to let them know that it’s not a joke, to let them know that I believe in them the way that my teacher believed in me, to let them know that there are second chances.

RAY SUAREZ: Rios is now working on a book that’s examining the achievement gap at Santa Barbara High School.

GWEN IFILL: Our next story profiles a photographer who documents the reality of life for dropouts caught up in the juvenile justice system.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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