As a teenager, Isidro Sesmas II struggled with anxiety and dropped out of school. But an inspirational teacher in a high school English class helped him begin a new chapter in his life, one that would lead to a university education.
Now an English major at Cal State LA, the 21-year-old Sesmas has turned his life around. He was honored today, Sept. 24, with the top academic achievement award in the California State University (CSU) system.
Sesmas was one of 23 students statewide to receive the 2019 CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award recognizes superior academic performance, exemplary community service and significant personal accomplishment. Sesmas was also awarded $9,000 and named a Chancellor Emeritus Charles B. and Catherine Reed Scholar.
The son of immigrants from Mexico, Sesmas is the first in his family to attend college and has risen above trauma and homelessness to focus on his academic and professional pursuits. His story is a testament to hard work, perseverance and the transformative power of higher education.
“I feel honored and that all my hard work is paying off,” Sesmas said. “This is a continual affirmation that there is beauty in the struggle. We just have to keep growing and don’t give up, knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
A descendant of indigenous lineage, Sesmas recalled being exposed to gang and street violence as a teen. At age 14, he dropped out of school and ran away from home.
After that episode of his life, Sesmas enrolled at Servite High School in Anaheim. He said he was inspired by an English teacher to read more and to delve into creative writing. While working on an autobiography assignment, Sesmas realized that writing allowed him to begin to heal from his experiences. He then found an appreciation for writing poetry and rap music and even participating in open mics.
He also developed a passion for reading, in particular books by such authors as Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and Frederick Douglass. He shared that they introduced him to new ways of thinking and to see education as a form of resistance.
Sesmas graduated from high school and decided to attend Cal State LA to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English. Since arriving at Cal State LA, he has excelled by achieving a 3.7 GPA and making the Dean’s List. He earned one of the English Department’s highest honors, the Barbara and Bernard G. Herman Scholarship. Sesmas has also served as an ambassador to recruit high school students to the university.
“Isidro’s academic achievements, service to the community and compelling personal story represent the best in our students,” Cal State LA President William A. Covino said. “Through his commitment to serve others, he conveys the true spirit of the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement.”
Sesmas has his eyes set on graduating and earning a teaching credential. Just as his English teacher helped him, Sesmas wants to teach high school and make a difference in the lives of students from underserved communities.
“I want to go on to becoming a high school teacher, and mentor those who reflect me and my experience,” said Sesmas, who ultimately plans to pursue a master’s degree and even a Ph.D. “I want to follow in the footsteps of Cal State LA alumnus Obed Silva, who shares similar history of overcoming the streets, violence, hardships and traumas.” Silva, who was Sesmas’ tutor, is now a professor of English at East Los Angeles College.
Sesmas also combines his interest in music, painting and photography to serve the community. He has helped organize events for the nonprofit group Self Help Graphics & Arts in Boyle Heights, showing participants how to use murals and screen printing as tools of creative expression, team building, self-empowerment and advocacy for their rights.
He recently started to work with Meztli Projects, an indigenous-based group of artists in Los Angeles, to organize workshops that promote mental health awareness and art as a form of healing.
“We are teaching the youth how to work as an art collective,” he explained. “We also encourage them to be actively involved in their communities.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 28,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.