Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

PROGRAM DIRECTOR: Uses His Past to Help Others

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

PROGRAM DIRECTOR: Uses His Past to Help Others

Article excerpt

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - Ramon Zepeda looks in the young eyes and sees a familiar struggle: duty and devotion to family struggling with dreams and desires for a better life.

It's a battle that haunted Zepeda as a teen in Hoke County. It's a battle that children of farmworkers fight every day across the South.

And now, as the program director of Student Action with Farmworkers, Zepeda shares his struggle - and his success - with a new generation of students. The nonprofit organization helps farmworkers and college students build coalitions for social change through the arts and storytelling.

"It's a huge change, both in their lives and in their futures," Zepeda said from the SAF offices at Duke University. The nonprofit has offices on campus, but it is not part of the school.

"It's very difficult to look at the bigger picture when your whole life has revolved around family."

"I was fortunate. I had opportunities that many never get. And still, for me, it was very difficult to break away."

Zepeda knows how difficult that break can be. He is the first person in his immediate family to hold a college degree. He's also the first to earn a high school degree.

That dedication to study masked the stress of a young man who dealt with the dissonance of long-term goals and the immediate need to work and help the family.

Life had been that way for generations in his family. He was born in a small village in central Mexico, the middle child of Panfilo and Cecilia Zepeda.

Immigration amnesty in the late 1980s allowed his family to move into the United States. At the age of 10, they moved to Boyle Heights, a Latino community in Los Angeles.

While it didn't feel that way at the time, it was the best place for Zepeda.

"Looking back now, I was fortunate. I was young enough to learn English and adapt," he said.

In 2002, his father's meat-packing job disappeared. With relatives already in North Carolina, Zepeda's family migrated to Hoke County. The rural surrounding was like a breath of home for him.

" Things were green like I remembered," he says. "I didn't like the big city. In East LA, nothing was green."

His parents worked in agriculture, tobacco and blueberries while Zepeda attended Hoke High School and worked odd jobs. He was a solid student and soon began helping other Latino students who were struggling in their new home.

Zepeda's leadership was recognized in school, and he was selected to attend a SAF summer high school workshop his junior year.

He returned to Hoke High that fall with a different outlook.

"They urged us to have a plan for the future," he said. …

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