Graduate Profile: Evita Henriquez
Native of East Oakland
For too many low income students in the United States, higher education remains out of reach.
A college education is widely recognized as a necessary step toward upward mobility in the United States, however the New York Times reports that over the past 30 years the gap between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earn bachelor’s degrees has dramatically widened.
Consider a high school student in East Oakland, California, a community with higher-than-average rates of poverty, unemployment, crime, violence and substance abuse. For the average teenager there, the possibility of someday earning a master’s degree probably seems as remote as winning the lottery. It is challenging enough just to complete a bachelor’s degree when one in three students fail to even graduate from high school.
Even with recent improvements, East Oakland still owns one of California’s highest high school dropout rates. For minority students especially, demographics suggest little hope of an academic escape route from a disadvantaged background. But one former resident, National University graduate Evita Henriquez, offers a refreshingly different narrative.
Henriquez will receive her Master of Public Administration degree at commencement ceremonies on April 21 in Sacramento. To fully appreciate just how far she has come, one must consider the daily realities amid some of the worst urban blight in the state. Nearly 30 percent of all children in East Oakland live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that one in six actually live in a household where the income averages close to $11,000 per year, or 50 percent below the federal poverty rate.
Additional breakdown from City-data.com indicates that more than half of these impoverished families are headed by a single parent, and so it was with the Henriquez household. With her father in and out of prison, the National University graduate moved between homeless shelters and sub-standard housing projects during her formative years while her mother struggled to put food on the table. She attended Castlemont High School, by her description “one of the most notorious inner-city schools in East Oakland.”
How rough is Castlemont? Last September Oakland Police shut the high school down following a 50-student brawl behind the auditorium. The news didn’t surprise Henriquez, who was frequently harassed when walking home after class.
“I came from nothing,” she said. “I never thought that I would go to college and I never dreamed that I would ever earn a master’s degree. Few growing up around me earned a high school diploma. My peers were getting pregnant, quitting school and having children at age 16.”
What Henriquez did have was one good parent, a supportive high school counselor and a close friend who later recommended National University. “I didn’t want to be a product of my environment,” she added. “There were a few people who encouraged me and believed in me, and I always believed in myself. They all told me the same thing: You need to leave here and stay in school.”
She graduated from high school in 2001 and went straight to CSU Long Beach to study broadcast journalism, applying for various scholarships and taking out student loans. Henriquez graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2006 and worked part-time for the San Francisco County Juvenile Probation Department before accepting a position with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Today, Henriquez lives in a respectable part of Brooklyn, New York. She drives a BMW and is just 10 minutes from work. By any measure, she considers her life successful, but in her own words, “I can’t rest on my accomplishments. I am always looking to excel. Growing up poor made me extremely ambitious.”
Since completing her graduate studies in February, she has applied for 75 job openings, including a management position with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Henriquez’s mother will be attending her graduation ceremony in Sacramento, along with her high school counselor.