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Friday, December 2, 2022

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Eric Becerra (center) wears his Aztec dancer headdress, while his parents don the doctoral regalia. Eric Becerra (center) wears his Aztec dancer headdress, while his parents don the doctoral regalia.

A Temporary Sacrifice for a Brighter Future

The son of migrant farmworkers, SDSU alumnus Eric Becerra follows a familiar path to earn doctorate from Harvard.
By Michael Klitzing

“SDSU's program really empowered me to push the system.”

For many, gaining acceptance into a Harvard University doctoral program sounds like a dream. For Eric Becerra, it was more like a dilemma.
The alumnus of San Diego State University’s school counseling program had a good job already, directing the high school equivalency program at Hartnell Community College on California’s Central Coast. He was also a father with two young children. Was he really willing to put his career on hold? To put a continent between himself and his kids?
Fortunately, his father, Humberto, was there to offer some hard-earned wisdom.
Mijo,” Humberto reminded his son, “our people have been doing that for centuries.”
A temporary sacrifice to allow your family a more prosperous future. It’s what had brought Eric’s grandfather to the United States from Mexico as a farm laborer under the Bracero program. It’s what attracted Eric’s parents to the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the agricultural fields in California’s Monterey County — Humberto working as an irrigator, and mother Raquel bagging produce in the packing sheds.
They worked with lettuce. Why couldn’t their son handle a little Ivy?
“He kind of re-centered my focus, and provided another narrative,” Eric said of the conversation. “I thought, ‘He's right, this is a two-year sacrifice. I can do it.’
“I've got to do this.”

Three years later, he’s done it. Becerra recently completed Harvard’s unique Doctor of Educational Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program — one of two SDSU alumni in his cohort of 25.
But the work he started at Harvard continues. After two years of study and research in Boston, Becerra spent the final year of his program in the field, working to launch a male success initiative at Long Beach City College (LBCC). This initiative takes aim at national statistics showing men — and particularly men of color — succeeding at lower rates in higher education.
“The initiative works intentionally with first-time, full-time male students to help them gain the navigational, social and personal capital necessary to not just get in, but get through successfully,” he explained.
When Becerra’s doctoral program ended, LBCC extended his contract for another 18 months.
“This work is my passion,” he said. “As a man of color who saw education as the lever to end the chain of generational poverty, I view education as a very powerful tool. A powerful way to create new realities for future generations.”
Pushing the system

Becerra, whose parents did not complete schooling past the sixth grade, was first drawn to education thanks to the inspiration of his counselor in his hometown of Castroville, California. Victor Cardenas, he recalls, intervened to set him on the right path when he was a naturally mischievous kid with parents working long hours.
“Mr. Cardenas would just bug the hell out of me about my grades and what I was thinking to do with my future,” Becerra recalls with a smile. “He played a huge role in me going to college, period.”

“To this day, I'm trying to be Mr. Cardenas for other students.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz, Becerra chose SDSU’s school counseling program because of its explicit focus on social justice and racial equity. Initially missing the application deadline, he waited another year to apply despite having received an acceptance letter to a program at another university. He’s grateful he did.
“I think the SDSU program prepared us really well to do our jobs and to reimagine what counseling is supposed to be,” said Becerra. “I feel like a lot of programs train future counselors to just fit right into the existing model and mode of operation. SDSU's program really empowered me to push the system.”

Embracing his roots

SDSU also offered him a chance to reclaim a piece of his identity. A traditional Aztec dancer, Becerra’s cultural pride as a Mexicano runs deep. But he said his work as a scholar on SDSU’s Native American and Indigenous Scholars Project (SHPA), which trains counselors and school psychologists to respond to the needs of Native American and Indigenous youth, allowed him to fully embrace his own Indigenous roots.
“To be in an academic space where I didn't have to separate my scholarly identity with my Indigenous cultural identity felt amazing,” said Becerra, who gave his children Aztec (Nahuatl) names: Tlaneci (sunrise) and Cuauhtémoc (descending eagle). “It gave me sanity, it fed me spiritually and I think it gave me, for the first time, an idea that I didn’t have to check that at the door. It’s something you bring into your educational experience, and all other aspects of your professional life.
“I brought a lot of those teachings to Harvard, and I've got to say, professors took note.”

This spring, the newly-minted Dr. Becerra found another way to reconnect with his identity.
Back in Castroville, he marked the occasion with family graduation photos. Framed by endless rows of lettuce plants, the son wore his Aztec dancer headdress. The parents donned the doctoral regalia.
“This achievement isn't mine alone,” Becerra explained.