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Dreams worth following

Photo of Maribel De La Torre in front of City of San Fernando Civic Center sign.
Mayor De La Torre hopes to revitalize historic City of San Fernando.

Community colleges are about second chances and choices. The mayor of San Fernando will tell you that. Community college gives you a chance to grow. Mayor Maribel De La Torre would agree.

De La Torre, a 1994 graduate of Mission College, harbored a childhood dream to attend UC Berkeley.

"When I was about 11 years old, I read an article about Berkeley," she recalled. "I really loved how the campus stood for all the civil rights causes. Even at 11, I realized Berkeley had such a great ‘personality’ that I knew I wanted to go there."

But the dream was not realized and after graduating from San Fernando High School, De La Torre found herself instead at another college in Southern California. She left after one semester.

"It wasn’t the right time in my life," she said. "I wasn’t serious about it."

De La Torre subsequently married, got an office job, and had her first child. But she soon realized that without an education and a degree, she would never achieve everything she wanted for her family. So, in 1992, she enrolled at Mission College. Admittedly, she chose Mission for the convenience of attending a college "in my back yard" where she could occasionally bring along her one-year-old son "without feeling he was the only child there."

But once she started taking classes, she said her attitude toward learning changed. Favorite instructors such as John Orozco, Richard Rains, George Mucherson and (former adjunct) Gerald Resendez inspired her with the reading they assigned.

"When I heard those instructors lecture and talk with such passion, I really wanted to understand those books," she said. "Before that, my educational pattern had been to memorize and recite back. At Mission, I learned how to become a critical thinker, to analyze things for myself."

De La Torre was a driven and ambitious student at Mission College, sometimes taking up to 25 units a semester. She did so well, she was accepted at all the top UC schools. The last acceptance letter brought with it a second chance – from Berkeley.

Married and with a child, De La Torre contemplated the difficulty of attending Berkeley at this stage in her life. It would require living apart from her husband, separating her son from a supportive family, and living in non-dorm housing. Despite the downsides, "Berkeley was a dream that was too hard to give up," she said.

By loading up on units each quarter, De La Torre graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in two years – just before giving birth to a second son. She never regretted her Bay Area decision and, in fact, said that son Dominic – though quite young then – still remembers and talks about "…the time we were at Berkeley."

Mayor De La Torre’s goals have now gone beyond personal ones to include an entire community. She and her family appear to have strong local support – sister Cindy Montañez is the assembly member from the area – and are committed to revitalizing "historic and visionary" San Fernando.

One very personal vision will be realized soon: a $7 million aquatics center that she has spearheaded will open next year at San Fernando Recreation Park. Growing up, she and her siblings were avid swimmers, but her mother would have to drive them to Glendale for the nearest competitive swimming program. There were none in the San Fernando area. The new aquatics center will have both an Olympic-sized pool and a warm water recreational pool.

"I want every single member of the community to be able to go there," she said. "Little tots and children, high school swimmers, working professionals who want to swim after a day at the office, seniors, the disabled – every segment of our community will be able to use the center."

That is a dream worth realizing.

– BY EDUARDO PARDO / Photo: Lydia Chung