Commencement Stories — Gina Guererro

With degree and teaching credential in hand, the mother of six plans on paying forward and paying back

Gina Guererro will receive her single-subject teaching credential at the Graduate School of Education Commencement ceremony on Monday, June 16, 2014. Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — One of Gina Guerrero’s favorite movies is 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The film stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, who overcame homelessness to start a multi-million-dollar brokerage firm.  Its theme resonates with her.

“If you have a dream, protect it,” she said. “When you are given the opportunity, take it with everything you have and work extremely hard to fulfill it.”

Those aren’t just empty words for Guerrero. The 41-year-old mother of six children, ranging in age from 24 to 8, will receive her single subject credential in English during the Graduate School of Education ceremony on Monday, June 16, 2014. Her story of overcoming adversity and perseverance could be a movie itself.

Guerrero grew up in El Monte, California, where she and her mother suffered physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse at the hands of Guerrero’s stepfather. The mother and daughter were in and out of domestic violence shelters until Guerrero left home at 15, after a sexual assault by her stepfather. However, like many who grow up in abusive households, she found herself falling into her own abusive relationships.

“I was attracted to abusive relationships, because that was all I knew,” she said. “I continued to remain in abusive relationships most of my life, and I became more and more defeated. I was homeless several times, sleeping in the streets, at any house I could find, motels and shelters, always trying to escape the abuse. However, I was never able to escape it, because I did not have the knowledge necessary to breaks the chains of oppression.

In 2006, she finally decided that she had had enough of the cycle of depression and abuse, took her children and struck out on her own. It was initially a struggle to find a place to live as she found few people who would rent to a single woman with children, but in 2007 she met Sherry Bex, who rented a room to her. It would be a life-altering experience in more ways than one.

Bex was earning her degree in sociology from Cal Poly Pomona after having attended Mt. San Antonio College, and she saw Guerrero’s potential. One night, Bex asked Guerrero if she was interested in going to college, and Guerrero didn’t hesitate.

“I was overjoyed. This was my chance at higher education,” she said. “The next day, I put my baby daughter in a rolling basket — I didn’t own a stroller, and we took the bus to the college. I registered and made an appointment for my tests. Sherry walked me around the entire campus and introduced me to everyone she knew. Those were the people that supported me for the three years I was there.”

Guerrero transferred to UC Riverside in 2010 and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 2013, then enrolled in the Graduate School of Education credential program. Throughout that time she and her family have lived in UCR’s Family Student Housing throughout her time at the school, giving them a home they can truly call their own.

For the past year she has served as a student-teacher at Moreno Valley High School, where every day she has the opportunity to make a big difference in a young person’s life.

“I believe that students from low socio-economic backgrounds need a positive student-teacher relationship, and this was one of my goals as a student teacher,” she said. “Several students have expressed their gratitude for making an impact in their life. They have told me that they admire me for overcoming my hardships and that I am an inspiration to them. Many have asked if they can attend my graduation because they are so proud of me. It touches my heart and inspires me to continue working on my goals.”

And while Guerrero plans to teach secondary English at a school in need after graduation, she has bigger visions as well.

“I plan to write grants and win money for my school. I also plan on volunteering for non-profit homeless and domestic violence shelters, feeding the homeless, and giving motivational talks for struggling students. My long term goals are to help students pursue their higher education through academic success,” she said.

But that’s not all. Her dream is to open an Inland Empire-based domestic violence and homeless shelter for women and children called Butterfly Visions, the name coming from a children’s book that she is writing about domestic violence. The shelter will be a family oriented group that focuses on higher education and on giving back to one’s community.

“I believe that the environment in Riverside has added to my success, so I want to provide the same opportunity for the residents,” she said. “I look forward to the day when I can give back to Mount San Antonio College, UCR and all the individuals that have made my dream possible. It has been their encouragement, support and donations that have given me the added tools to succeed. I do not dream of buying a big house and fancy car, I dream of paying it forward and helping other women in my previous situation and the schools that have made this possible.”

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