Elisul "J.R." Arias

DATE: Monday, February 22, 2016

J.R. Arias

Three afternoons a week, J.R. Arias travels with other members of the HCC admission department's Team Inspire to mentor students at Dean Tech in Holyoke, the high school he briefly attended before dropping out at the age of 15. "What I like about this job," says Arias, "is not only the fact that we work with adolescent kids, but they're able to see somebody that looks like them, that comes from where they come from. I live in the same neighborhoods these kids live in. They see me sometimes on the weekend playing basketball. I like when they see me and say, 'hey, listen man, I know where you're coming from.' I say to them, 'I know that you got tough circumstances, but, bro, I've got a 3.8 GPA. I'm in two honors societies in my college, and I came from exactly where you came from, if not worse.' I know it sounds cliché, but I love for them to be like, oh, if J.R. did it..."


South Bronx, N.Y.; Now lives in Holyoke

Liberal Arts

Green Key Honor Society; Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society; mentor, HCC Team Inspire; tutor, HCC Adult Learning Center at PAFEC (the Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center)

Favorite course & teacher:
I've got two favorites. The first one was a Learning Community I took last semester, "Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole," with Nicole Hendricks (criminology) and Mary Orisich (political economy). That was such a great, great class. We watched the HBO series "The Wire," and it was such a beautiful show. I could relate a lot. It touched on so many different concepts and myths that surround urban environments and urban people in general, and I just loved breaking it down. My other favorite class was "Social Problems" with Tracy Ross (socoiology). I've taken all of her classes. Her teaching method is just awesome. I love listening to her talk. She takes these really complicated concepts and makes them simple, but not in a way that waters them down. 

What classes are you taking this semester?
Child psychology; LC 205: "Lies My Teacher Told Me" (English literature and history); astronomy  

What brought you to HCC?
I dropped out of high school when I was 15. I was into a lot of bad stuff. Growing up in an urban environment, there's many avenues to tap, pitfalls to fall into. I wasn't a good student. I was lost. I didn't know what I was going to do. I knew that my options were limited, cause, you know, you grow up hearing that if you don't have a high school diploma, you're a nobody, basically. I knew that I had put myself in a tough position and where I come from you only have certain opportunities. You're either going to ge a drug dealer or you're going to rob people. Cause you can't go into an employer's office and go, "I'm 15, I'm not in school right now but I really want to work for you cause I really need money 'cause I'm poor and my family's poor." They're gonna look at you like you have three heads. I didn't want to sit down and do nothing with my life, cause that's not forward progress.

I tried to get a job, anything. I applied everywhere. I really did get strange looks. I was a Hispanic male with no education at that point. I wanted to work, legitimately. I was getting sick and tired of waking up every day and going to bed every night not feeling like I really did anything with the day. Every single day. On top of the dangers I was putting myself in, it was tough for me. I had so much anxiety and stuff, like, man, I want to go out and do something. I want to try and get my GED, and my mom pushed me too. She was like, go ahead, you can do it. I tried two GED programs. One I couldn't get in cause funding was frozen. The other they just had me sitting in front of a computer every day. I was like, this is not right for me, so I ended up quitting. At that point, I was like, maybe I'm not destined to get my GED. Maybe I'm supposed to be a hustler.

I was about to give up, and I think it was my mom who told me about PAFEC. I was really reluctant cause I had already tried two programs and they didn't work out. But I ended up going. I went to an orientation and I really liked the way they presented everything, and I saw that there were teachers there. They were actually going to teach, so I was like, I'm going to give this a shot, and I just progressed. I got my GED relatively quick, but college was not even in my vocabularly. I just wanted a job. It was my mentor, Allison Reid, my math teacher and history teacher at PAFEC, who really introduced college to me. She always told me I was very intelligent, which was shocking. I still get emotional when I think about it, cause nobody had ever told me that. 

What's been your most meaningful experience at HCC?
It was definitely Honors Convocation when I was sitting on stage wearing my Green Key vest, with all the other honors students. Not to brag, but I came a long way from where I was. I used to do some really bad stuff. There were times when I didn't think I was going to live to be 21. I cried when I turned 21; everybody knows that at PAFEC. Sitting on the stage that day, seeing my moms there, it was surreal, to be in honors, 'cause people like me don't make it to places like this. You know what I mean?

What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome at HCC?
College for me is the hardest thing I have ever done. It's been challenging for me because some of the things you learn you get the foundation for when you're in high school and in previous years, and I didn't have a really good middle school experience and I didn't do high school. I've been having to play catch-up a lot here at HCC, especially in some subjects, like math. Math for me was like Egyptian hieroglyphics.    

What is your favorite thing about HCC?
The professors. I hear people complaining some times about professors. I'm always like, bro, if you're not getting the result you want from the professors it's just because you're not talking to them. I've prided myself on establishing relationships with my professors. If you establish relationships with your professors they're going to reciprocate that same energy. They're gonna want to help you. They're going to hear you and understand.  

What's the most important thing you've learned at HCC?
You gotta be diligent. I tell my family all the time, anybody can do college. Before, I didn't think that. I used to laugh at people in college. A lot of that was insecurity, like I'd been told my whole life I wasn't really smart, so I was like, "We're not smart enough. We're street, urban kids. We don't belong in college." That's how I used to think. But college is for anybody. You just gotta be resilient, and you gotta be able to overcome obstacles, cause you can only get better from that, but if you stop at the gate, then that's it, you quit, and what comes out of that? Nothing.

What are your plans after HCC?
I am definitely going for my bachelor's degree. That's not even a question. I am liberal arts now, but I am definitely going to study sociology and maybe environmental science. What I want to do is work with at-risk kids and maybe be a social worker or something along those lines, 'cause I feel like those kids sometimes get swept  under the rug.