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"I believe in social justice and community empowerment."
Tomás Garrett, 30, was once a high school dropout who ran with gangs, but he turned his life around and went to college, graduated with honors, and now hopes to help troubled Latino teenagers. Mr. Garrett earned a 3.94 GPA at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, winning the top award for sociology students while mentoring first-time juvenile offenders. His research has focused on ways to improve academic achievement among Latino high school students. Tomás intends to continue his research while he seeks a doctorate in sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Tomás grew up in a poor family, but it was rich in spirit. His divorced mother worked all day and attended school at night but still found the time to read to her three children when she came home. Besides stressing the importance of community, education, and cultural pride, she also took to the streets to demonstrate for immigrant rights and police accountability. "This compassion and drive for people rubbed off on me very early in life," he recalls. "I recall marching with a picket sign at the age of six and chanting songs of protest."
As a teenager, however, Tomás succumbed to peer pressure, joined a street gang, and dropped out of high school. With the aid of adult mentors, he finally turned his life around and found himself counseling first-time juvenile offenders, sometimes tutoring them for two hours almost every night to raise their school grades and their self-esteem. He became a community organizer in his late teens, mobilizing residents in Denver, Colorado, to warn of the dangers of lead paint for children and winning a statewide lead abatement law.
Mr. Garrett realized, however, that he needed a good education to achieve the best results. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, majoring in sociology, and adapted quickly to the academic routine. He was elected to the Phi Eta Sigma national honor society for freshmen, received an award of excellence as a sophomore, joined the Golden Key International Honor Society, and won his department's top award as a senior. Overall, he compiled a 3.94 GPA. At the same time, he was active as a teacher, recreation leader, and housing cooperative manager. Tomás also coordinated community teach-ins and organized a turnout of 700 young people to do community projects on a Milwaukee Youth Service Day.
In seeking his doctorate, Mr. Garrett hopes to focus his research on Latino high school students to discover what factors are important in their academic achievement, including the role of parents, teachers, youth groups, and churches. "My personal goals are to develop a more in-depth understanding of society while pursuing social change as a scholar and educator," he writes.
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