Erica Alfaro is MiraCosta College. A single mom and one-time high school dropout, Alfaro turned to MiraCosta College when she heeded her parents’ advice about the importance of a good education, and has gone on to earn a bachelor’s degree from California State University, San Marcos and a master’s degree from San Diego State University. Her iconic photo in cap and gown with her farmworker parents in a Carlsbad strawberry field after she earned her master’s degree went viral and made headlines around the world.
She said she owes it all to MiraCosta, where faculty and staff provided the support to succeed and the encouragement to believe in herself. “Even now, even though I have a master’s degree, I still like to go to MiraCosta and walk around or sit in the library and reflect. Its home,” said Alfaro.
Alfaro will bring her message of perseverance and the importance of education as she joins award-winning actor and community activist Edward James Olmos and poet and bestselling author Erika Sanchez as a keynote speaker when MiraCosta College hosts the Latino Book & Family Festival at its Oceanside Campus on Saturday, September 28. The festival, a popular cultural and educational gathering, is expected to attract more than 5,000 people from throughout the region.
Born in Fresno, Alfaro was raised in Tijuana until she was 13 and spoke no English, when the family moved to Oceanside because her fieldworker parents wanted her to have access to better educational opportunities. It was, however, a struggle. The Alfaros, five in all, shared a two-bedroom apartment with a family of six in a neighborhood where crime, drugs, and teenage pregnancy were rampant. Just two years after moving to Oceanside, Alfaro became pregnant at age 15, dropped out of school, and moved with the child’s father to Fresno.
That’s where she had her epiphany.
“We were not getting along and I told him I was going to leave, so he locked me and my son out of the house,” Alfaro recalled. “I was laying outside and went back to a memory of one time in the summer when I was 13 years old and my mom took me and my brother and sister to work in the tomato fields in San Ysidro from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. I told her how tired I was, how I wanted to go back home, and she told us, ‘This is our life. I never had the opportunity to go to school, and if you want to change your life, you have to get an education.’ That’s when I decided to go back to school.”
Alfaro enrolled in a homeschool program, earned her high school diploma, moved back to Oceanside, and enrolled at MiraCosta College in fall 2008. Her son, Luis, was 2.
“I found a very welcoming environment from the first day I stepped on campus,” said Alfaro, who credited EOPS Counselor Candy Owens with setting her on a pathway of achievement. “She inspired me to be the best I could, to believe in myself, to not give up.”
Besides being her counselor, Owens was the instructor in a college skills course that was the first MiraCosta College course Alfaro enrolled in. That Owens and several of Alfaro’s professors and counselors were Latina/o inspired Alfaro to set educational and career goals.
“There was a complete transformation from when I first met her to where she is today,” Owens said. “She came here as a very quiet person who was full of fears; fears about life and pretty much everything, but was able to reshape her life, her dreams, her possibilities.”
Indeed, Alfaro soon began to thrive and would become active in the Parents on Campus Club and the Latina Leadership Network. She graduated with an associate degree in psychology three years later while working fulltime, going to school fulltime, and raising her son as a single parent.
But her challenges were far from over. Shortly after transferring to California State University, San Marcos, Alfaro’s son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Caring for Luis and treating his condition was taking its toll. Alfaro’s grades were slipping. After one year on campus, she was academically disqualified.
Instead of giving up, Alfaro re-enrolled at MiraCosta, recommitted to her academics, and was allowed to re-register at CSUSM. Alfaro not only graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she was chosen as the university’s commencement speaker. Two years have passed since then. Alfaro now has a master’s degree in education, with a concentration in counseling. She also has become an in-demand motivational speaker.
“I want to show people that anything is possible, that even though life is not always easy, anything is possible as long as you’re willing to put in the work. Never give up.”