I had the pleasure of speaking recently with Omar Viramontes, the 2013 recipient of the Tom Tucker Leadership Scholarship, the single largest scholarship awarded annually by the UCSD Alumni Association. The Tucker Leadership Scholarship comes from an endowment established by a group of UCSD alumni in 2011, and Omar is the second recipient of the award. He will graduate in the spring from UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, the same college I graduated from many years ago. Speaking with Omar about his experiences at UCSD not only stirred fond memories of my own time there, but also served as a stark reminder of the value of hard work and determination, and of the importance of family. Omar has clearly earned everything he’s been given, and he’s determined to improve the lives of others. Here is his story:
Behind every successful student is a story of how he or she got there. Sometimes it’s innate ability; sometimes sheer determination. And sometimes, it is through sacrifices parents make to see their children have opportunities they never had. Parents rarely advertise their commitments as parents. They simply make them.
Marshall College senior Omar Viramontes comes from a family that has endured the challenges and hardships that often define the immigrant experience in America. His parents have spent the past two decades sacrificing to ensure their four boys grew up with opportunities to dream, to achieve, and to succeed. Today, Omar and his brothers are living proof of the commitment their parents made to ensure the future of the Viramontes brothers.
Omar was born in Central Mexico and first came to California when he was seven years old, spending a year in America and quickly picking up the English language. However, their pursuit of the American dream came to a sudden halt when the family’s home burned to the ground, and the family was forced to return to Mexico. Two years would pass before they returned.
“I lost my English in those two years and I had to re-learn everything,” Omar says. “I was in fifth grade by then. It was a challenge but it just made me work harder.”
Omar’s family settled in the Central Valley town of Earlimart, where the four boys have all gone through public schools. Three have graduated from Delano High School and gone on to college, the youngest is a student at Delano High now.
Omar, a Human Biology major, credits his involvement in his school’s MESA program with helping to unlock his potential as a scientist. “I joined the MESA program in high school,” Omar recalls. “I got the chance to participate in math and science competitions at Fresno State University and it really opened my eyes to what I wanted to do one day.”
So much so, in fact, that Omar graduated from high school in just three years. He applied to colleges all over the country, including Ivy League schools, other UC campuses, and more. But it was his visit to UCSD during his final year of high school that sold him on the university.
“As a first-generation college student, I wanted a support group. I talked to students during my visit and I knew immediately that those resources were there. I really felt comfortable with what UCSD had to offer,” he says now. “It was two things…the vibe on campus and the resources. And the weather helped of course…”
Omar credits his parents with giving him the opportunities, motivation, and work ethic necessary to reach and succeed in college.
“Our parents had no opportunities, because they had no education. They still pick grapes to this day,” he says. “They instilled in us the need to get a college education.” Omar tells the story that his father has spent the past quarter-century working in grape fields, first as a seasonal laborer and, since the family’s permanent relocation to Earlimart, nearly year-round. His mother does the same, and has for as long as Omar can remember.
Their philosophy was simple. “They believed our job as their children was to do well in school,” Omar says of his parents. “And their job was to give us the necessities.”
Working in the grape fields – even in roles where pruning and upkeep of the vines is more than just a picking season job – still doesn’t fill the entire year. Omar’s parents would be without work for at least a few months each year. Their commitment was to scrimp and save for their children’s future rather than spend anything they had saved during those lean months.
“We were barely able to bring enough food to the table, and it forced me to mature quickly,” Omar says now. “When I was little I thought they were stingy. But deep down I knew why. They saved year-round for the winter and spring months, and to make sure my brothers and I would always have what we needed.”
Omar tells the story that when he was young and even until his second college summer, he and his brothers joined his dad going street by street, town by town throughout the Central Valley selling corn and melons in the blazing hot summer months to supplement the family’s income during the off-season. “My dad, twin brother and I have done this for the last 15 years now, and my dad and little brother continue doing it,” he says.
The Viramontes’ commitment to providing for their children, and to instilling within those children the tenets they brought with them from Mexico, has resulted in an impressive set of accomplishments for all four children. The oldest is a Cal State Bakersfield graduate who is now an elementary school teacher about to complete his master’s degree. Omar’s twin brother is a junior at Harvard University, majoring in neurobiology. And Omar’s younger brother will soon complete his studies at Delano High School and matriculate to college as well.
“The U.S. offers many opportunities, so we must take advantage of them for one to be able to give back to the community. Our parents instilled in us the importance of education, hard work, and giving back…those three things above everything else.”
Among the opportunities Omar has received is the financial aid he has been awarded at UCSD.
“Without financial aid I wouldn’t be able to be at UCSD,” he says bluntly. “Scholarships and other forms of aid allow low-income people to go to college and reach their dreams, make an impact, and improve their communities.”
Omar is completing his senior year at UCSD with an eye toward medical school and, eventually, his own dream of working in an underserved community to improve the futures of children and families – much like his own future was improved through the hard work of his parents.
Omar reflected on his upbringing as he thought about his future.
“My life has allowed me to understand the meaning of the saying, ‘to suffer is to live.’ Rather than resenting the hardships I’ve faced living as an immigrant with parents who are field workers. I’ve come to embrace them because they‘ve made me the responsible, diligent, and grateful person that I am today.”
He points to the lack of quality medical care in many rural and impoverished communities, and hopes to be able to help alleviate that one day. He adds, unequivocally, that “it’s important to give back what I’ve been given.”
It’s clear Omar Viramontes has the compassion, drive, and commitment to change people’s lives. Thanks in part to the scholarship support he’s received to attend UCSD, it won’t be long before he’s doing just that.
This post originally appeared on Paul Lanning’s blog, Philanthropy Matters.