Zandro Lerma’s eyes light up when he talks about his 1967 Cadillac coupe de Ville. Someday, it will be painted black with black interior and play more than AM oldies stations. For now, the car takes a back seat to education.
This spring, Lerma will graduate from Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies and plans to apply to graduate school.
But it wasn’t an easy journey. Lerma got into trouble and served time in prison. In 2008, when he began attending community college, Lerma’s dream was to attain an associate’s degree so he could get a good job. Now, education has taken Lerma further than he ever thought possible.
“He is a student because he wants to grow as a person,” says Ethnic Studies professor Natchee Barnd, “He wants to impact the world in a positive way and is generous with his insights.”
Lerma appreciates his professors’ confidence and mentorship.
“The Ethnic Studies faculty at Oregon State University believe in me and push me and inspire me and make me want to get masters degree and a Ph.D.,” Lerma says. “That’s my ultimate goal: to get a Ph.D. and be a professor myself.”
A rough start
Lerma grew up in Bishop, Texas, in a racially segregated area. He says he simply took up space in classrooms, and teachers never encouraged him to pursue higher education.
His mother encouraged him to stay in school making sure he woke up and got to school on time.
“In school I was picking up some things, but I didn’t feel like I was a part of the school,” Lerma says. “I didn’t really belong there.”
When he started getting into trouble in his neighborhood, Lerma’s father brought him to Woodburn for a fresh start, but the environment wasn’t as positive as they hoped. Lerma says gangs were popular in Woodburn and drugs and alcohol were just as prominent there as back home in Texas.
“I was attacked by some gang members,” Lerma explains. “And instead of going to the police, I decided to handle it myself. I got in trouble and ended up going to prison, unfortunately.”
While on bail, Lerma was allowed to finish high school, but after graduation he was convicted of the charges against him and sentenced to prison. Through it all, his dream of attending college never dissipated. Lerma filled out financial aid papers before he was released and started school at Chemeketa Community College following his release in the fall of 2008.
Coming to Oregon State
At Chemeketa Community College, Lerma met a mentor, Leo Rasca-Hidalgo.
“He called me Dr. Lerma,” Lerma says of Rasca-Hidalgo. “He made me want to learn more about my culture and identity.”
Rasca-Hidalgo’s Chicano culture class helped Lerma focus his attention on Ethnic Studies, an area he became passionate about.
It took one visit to Oregon State and a meeting with several Ethnic Studies faculty for him to make up his mind.
“It just kind of seemed like this is where I needed to be,” Lerma says.
Lerma transfered to Oregon State in the fall of 2012, and remembers feeling a bit unsure.
“I didn’t know my way around,” he says. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect from my professors, but I found my community and talked to my advisors and got on the right track.”
But he quickly found a niche within the Ethnic Studies Department. Barnd says Lerma taught him the real meaning of overcoming obstacles.
“He reminds me of what an eager, opening-minded, but critical student looks like,” Barnd says. “[Lerma] is open to learning from everyone, not just his professors.”
Lerma is involved in the Ethnic Studies Student Association, where his work focuses on empowering young people to make smart choices, including attending higher education.
He is also an intern for the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a statewide advocacy organization working with those convicted of crime, victims of crime and the families of both to create a smarter criminal justice system, something that Lerma is passionate about after his time in prison.
“They want to be smarter about crime, reduce Oregon’s criminal justice budget,” Lerma says.
When he’s not working at his part-time job, in class or studying, Lerma enjoys spending as much time with his girlfriend and three children as possible. On the weekends, Lerma takes his children for long drives in the Cadillac. Lerma says working on the car reminds him of his father, who owned a similar model when the family lived in Texas.
“I admired his car so much,” Lerma said of his father. “I want to restore mine as a tribute to him.”
Making the point
Although it’s not always an easy path, Lerma hopes to inspire others from backgrounds like his to attend colleges and universities, and his professors believe he can.
“I hope he continues to tell his stories, to share his knowledge, experience and growing wisdom,” Barnd says.
Lerma admits he’s had some doubts along the way.
“We all get overwhelmed, and that’s normal,” he says. “Don’t let that get to you. There is a place for you here. You do belong in higher education.”
Lerma says he became successful by building relationships with professors and his fellow classmates.
“It’s difficult being a person of color here,” he says. “We have a smaller community, and though there are many resources for us, sometimes they’re hard to find.”
Lerma believes more Latinos and Latinas would strive for higher education if they were encouraged by teachers starting at a young age.
“A teacher’s job is to empower those students,” he says.
And that’s exactly what he hopes to do in the future.
“Ethnic Studies gives me a lens to where I can address race and ethnicity and how they are intertwined with the criminal justice system,” He says. “I want to face these kinds of problems and really make a difference.”