As a Latino, low-income student growing up in Los Angeles County, George Sanchez merely dreamed of attending college, but in 1977, he embarked on his first airplane ride to Boston — to attend Harvard University.
As a first-generation student, Sanchez struggled to carve a path toward and through college. Now a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at USC, Sanchez uses his own experiences as a college student of color to aid students at the University who go through struggles similar to his own.
Sanchez’ parents possessed a grade-school education when they immigrated to the United States from Mexico, which Sanchez said was difficult because he lacked the support he needed to create a clear path toward higher education.
“Like a lot of first generation students, I didn’t know what to expect,” Sanchez said. “You were really worried about running out of money, [of] being a burden to your own family.”
Thirteen percent of USC freshman are first-generation students, many of whom face the same challenges Sanchez faced more than 30 years ago at Harvard. Today, Sanchez closely works with the scholars from the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, who are typically low-income and first-generation.
As a mentor for these students, Sanchez worked with the current director of the fund, Christina Yokohama, to build a study abroad program targeted toward first-generation students.
“[We] were looking at the same reports, and the reports were that first-generation college students tended to not study abroad in comparison to other students at USC,” Sanchez said. “It tended to be an issue of not feeling comfortable and not knowing why.”
Being able to visit a foreign country with other Topping scholars provided a pipeline for many of them to study abroad: an education that was previously unavailable for marginalized students who often lacked the knowledge and initiative to travel.
For Felipe Hernandez, a junior majoring in civil engineering, being able to visit Japan with Sanchez made him view his own career pathway in a different light. As for his direct relationship with Sanchez, Hernandez said that he has been a mentor that “always let his voice be heard.”
“Sometimes he doesn’t have to say much to guide you,” Hernandez said.
Because of his one-on-one work with underrepresented students, Sanchez has been able to create connections with other students in ways that professors often do not.
Along with fomenting a direct relationship with the Topping Scholars, and even writing about the history of the fund, Sanchez also worked with students and other faculty members to create a virtual pantry program to aid students who suffer from food insecurity.
As the vice dean of diversity and strategic initiatives, Sanchez formalized his role to help underprivileged students who struggled to bring food to the table.
“It was literally making decisions to buy a book instead of a sandwich,” Sanchez said.
With a donation from a former professor, Sanchez was able to make the work official and has now helped feed many students through the Virtual Food Pantry.
Sanchez is currently writing a book about the history of the Boyle Heights neighborhood. He continues to open doors for those who are often underrepresented on college campuses and create opportunities that previously were nonexistent at the University.
Last semester, Sanchez kickstarted a new major — the Contemporary Latino and Latin American studies, which now has 22 students enrolled.
“Students that were coming from Central America, from Guatemala and El Salvador, and undocumented students that came in contact with me really wanted to study both Latinos in the U.S. and Latin America,” Sanchez said. “There has been a lot of enthusiasm about that. We’ve had to fight for the major.”
With courses offered throughout different departments, students are able to learn about different aspects of Latinos and Latin America, through an American studies or a political science class.
For Ana Barrios, an undocumented junior majoring in contemporary Latino and Latin American studies, working with Sanchez on direct research on Guatemala, the country she was born in, sparked her interest in joining the major.
“I’ll be able to learn more about Latin America,” Barrios said. “As a Latina, that is important, especially in a predominately white institution such as USC.”
But Sanchez’s mentorship and help goes past creating the new major, especially now during a time when many Latino and undocumented students like Barrios say they feel uncertain about their future under the Trump administration.
Sanchez said that during the weeks following Trump’s election, he spent eight hours a day helping students who were worried about what the future had in store for them and for their families.
“It was a pretty serious time, a lot of crying, a lot of real confusion and fear,” Sanchez said.
He added that the students were worried about serious issues while trying to do all the work others have to do. So they’ve got all those things combined.
“And that’s tough,” Sanchez said. “That’s not easy.”
Iris Verduzco, a Topping scholar and a senior majoring in law, history and culture, said she was grateful to have had Sanchez as a mentor during these tumultuous times.
“He’s just incredibly selfless,” Verduzco said. “Growing up, I’ve never been one to really talk to someone about my problems because I’ve always just been raised with that mentality that people are going through their own things and they don’t want to hear your problems on top of that, but Sanchez has always made me feel important.”
Despite his quiet and calm demeanor, Sanchez’ impact on students like Verduzco and Barrios has spoken louder than words. His relationship with underprivileged students provides insight on how professors and faculty members can lead minority students to and through higher education. The only way to ensure an educative future though, Sanchez said, is through change.
“We’re either going to be an engine for social mobility … or we’re just going to restamp the status quo all the time,” Sanchez said. “And for me, I’m not really into restamping the status quo.”