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When José Rico emigrated from Mexico to Chicago with his family when he was seven years old, he never would have dreamed he would one day be appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as an Executive Director for an initiative focused on an incredibly important issue for Latinos and all Americans—education.
But today, that is exactly what he is – the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Rico’s work for the White House is focused on "ensuring that there are more Latinos who go through the education pipeline successfully and receive a quality education from birth to college." As executive director, he advises President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on education policies and programs with the goal of expanding education opportunities and outcomes for Latinos
Despite his own struggles at school growing up, the goal of making a quality education accessible for all students has been a driving force for Rico as evidenced by his life’s work.
There weren't a lot of teachers who looked like me or, for that matter, that I and many of my classmates could relate to.
- José Rico, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics
When Rico first entered elementary school in the United States, he did not have the option of participating in a bilingual education program. Instead, he was placed in special education classes because no one at his school knew how to communicate with him in his native language.
He was shuffled along in classes without learning much. "There weren't a lot of teachers who looked like me or, for that matter, that I and many of my classmates could relate to," said Rico about fitting in.
"Like many immigrants, my parents got me ready for school every day and hoped for the best," Rico said.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the communication barriers that made it very difficult to bridge the gaps. Low expectations by school officials and their lack of understanding of Latino families also served as barriers.
"The school would send letters home in English, but my parents couldn't read them," he explained. "My parents worked long hours and very little was done to include them in their children’s education.”
When Rico was in 9th grade, his best friend was suddenly shot and killed as they walked to school in the South Side of Chicago, by someone who had wrongly believed Rico’s best friend was a gang member.
Witnessing his best friend killed made school even harder. However, the tragedy was a turning point in his life. Rico's eighth-grade teacher reached out to him. Seeing Rico’s struggle with this traumatic event, the teacher arranged for him to be transferred to a magnet school—the kind of school his parents would never have known about.
Rico excelled in a school that supported and guided its students in preparing for college – something Rico believes was essential in making him the first in his family to go to college.
Due to this supportive environment, Rico did very well in math and science, and scored well on the college entrance exams. This led to his acceptance at every college to which his counselor asked him to apply, including Harvard University.
Selecting which college to attend “was easy,” Rico said. He chose the University of Illinois because they gave him a guaranteed full ride scholarship. He would have had to pay $3,000 a year to attend Harvard. At the time, when his parents were paying around $1,500 a year in rent, Rico believed that asking them to spend three-years’ rent in one year for his education was unimaginable.
Rico fell in love with the University of Illinois.
"I had access to the latest technology, became friends with people from all over the world and had the door to new possibilities open up for me," he said. "I thought I had made it."
But once again, Rico found there weren't a lot of professors or students who looked like him.
"I started to think: Wow, why don't more Latinos get to experience this privileged existence?" Rico asked himself. "So many of my friends who were smarter and more talented than me and who were really good people didn’t have the chance to go to college. I wondered: Why aren't they here too? It became an issue of equity for me."
Today, of all Hispanic adults in the U.S. over 25, only 14 percent have a bachelor’s degree.
While at the University of Illinois, Rico organized students to fight for a Latino studies program at the University. Today it is one of their hallmark programs.
Rico enrolled as an engineering student because, "Back then, engineering was the way to get to the middle class and help your family.”
He got an engineering internships during college, but felt like something was missing. “I was bored and I wanted to use my college education in a way that would help all students, including some who shared my background
That summer, he volunteered to become a math and science tutor for high school students. "I fell in love with the idea of teaching; I wanted to contribute to the world by helping kids just like me go to college and have opportunities to fulfill their dreams."
Much to the chagrin of his friends and family, Rico left engineering to become a high school science teacher in his old Chicago neighborhood.
"I went back to my old neighborhood because I knew that so many people in my community are talented and intelligent, but see a world without possibilities even though a world of opportunities are within their reach."
While teaching, Rico started a youth leadership program that trained students to identify services that they needed to make it through school (e.g., childcare, summer jobs, legal services, free clinics). His program caught the attention of Public Allies, where he later worked.
After securing two master's degrees and becoming increasingly involved in providing education training and expanding access to educational opportunities, Rico participated in a hunger strike to start a new high school: Chicago's Multicultural Arts High School. He was soon thereafter named its principal.
And in 2009, he got a phone call from the First Lady: "My boss Michelle [Obama], from Public Allies, called me and asked 'Do you want to come to D.C. and work on education with us?’”
He responded with an emphatic, “Yes.”
Rico knew then as now that the future of the United States is inextricably linked to the future success of Latinos—and that the cornerstone of this success will be education. Latinos will represent 60% of the population growth in the United States from 2005 to 2050 and currently represent 1 out of every five students in our nation’s public elementary and secondary schools.
As an immigrant who was the first in his family to attend college and who now advises the President of the United States on education, Rico is often reminded of a quote from the civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, "We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own."
Isa Adney is a Fox News Latino Education and Community Columnist and the author of Community College Success (NorLights Press, 2012), available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She advises students across the country on how to break socio-economic barriers and build positive educational communities. You can connect with Isa on Twitter, Facebook, and www.isaadney.com.
For story ideas e-mail isa at firstname.lastname@example.org