Emma Espinoza is grit personified. She is triumph over tragedy, determination in the face of despair and the victory of belief in the battle with self-doubt.
And on May 21, the single mom who first started taking college courses at Mt. SAC in 2011 and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2020, will be a graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with an emphasis in social work.
“It’s been a long journey,” Espinoza said, “but it is really worth it with the community I have been able to connect with.”
She has pushed through a tough childhood and adolescence, navigated food and housing insecurities, and raised a son, believing all the way that education would be the difference-maker in her world if she just stuck with it.
“No matter what, education is really a life choice that continues to give and continues to help you grow and love yourself when the world shows you otherwise,” she said.
Espinoza fought to love herself with the same doggedness she used to survive. As a little girl in her native Leon, a city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, she and her little brother were beaten and starved by her father, whom Espinoza says was mentally unstable.
Her mother had left them when Espinoza was 3 but came back for the children when she was 6, spiriting them away from the house while Espinoza’s father was sleeping. They took multiple buses, crossed through water and dug through dirt to cross the border into the United States. Espinoza recalled piling into a large vehicle that then dropped off riders at different cities. She, her brother and her mother got out in the Watts area of Los Angeles.
When they arrived, Espinoza’s mother left the two children at a friend’s house. The friend enrolled them in school. Espinoza now had regular meals, and she went to the dentist for the first time. When she turned 8, her mother came back to visit, and when she was 10, she took Espinoza and her brother to live with her, her boyfriend and her other daughter. Espinoza did the cooking and cleaning.
Espinoza’s mother battled mental illness and drug addiction, she said, and was not on stable footing. She was abusive and after Espinoza confided to her teacher about what she had endured, the Department of Children and Family Services got involved, removing all three children from her mother’s care when she was 11. At 13, Espinoza was returned to her mother, and it was then that she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant with her son, Christopher, who is now 13.
“I was afraid,” Espinoza said. “I kept the baby because I just felt like it was the right thing to do to keep him. It was already in my heart to keep him, and I had felt him grow. I had great candidates for adoption, but I felt I could do the work to become a great parent.”
Espinoza returned to foster care, placed in around eight homes until she aged out of the system at 23.
“It was difficult because a lot of them were in it for the money,” she said of foster care. “They didn’t get to know you and didn’t care about your triggers. It was not a human interaction.”
After aging out, Espinoza lived in Command Post, a large building in Los Angeles that operates like a shelter for current and former foster youth with nowhere else to go.
“They have microwaveable food, hot pockets, water, lot of beds, cubicles and quick in and out showers,” she said.
A Path Forward
While Espinoza struggled to find firm footing, there was one place where she felt nurtured and cared for – school. Despite the overwhelming odds, she managed to raise her son while also keeping up with her schoolwork.
“I thought I could try and if I got into college, cool,” she said, “and if I didn’t, I thought I would be ok. But I always knew that education was my safe space where I felt acknowledged and felt safe. Belonging was a big thing I lacked, and education was where I was able to find it.”
When she was 18 and living in a foster care in Baldwin Park, Espinoza started taking classes at Mt. SAC. She had been told that college was for those with money and family support, but Espinoza pushed ahead anyway.
Despite battling housing and food insecurity, she persevered. The childcare center at Mt. SAC provided a place for her son to go while she took her classes. A gym membership enabled her and her son to take showers when they were in between places to live.
After nine years of taking classes, Espinoza graduated from Mt. SAC in 2020, during the pandemic, and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona. Espinoza found a part-time job as a peer mentor for Renaissance Scholars, a program on campus that provides comprehensive support to former foster youth.
She also has been involved in the Prison Education Project (PEP) and the Reintegration Academy (RA), serving as a session leader, and creating and teaching a course on soft skills like as empathy, teamwork and accountability. In addition, she taught an Intro to College course and a financial literacy class.
Political Science Professor Renford Reese founded both prison education programs and met Espinoza when she served as an intern. One day, Reese was talking to her about PEP and the conversation ventured into her background.
“I have been teaching for 26 years, and I have never heard of a student who had that many trials and tribulations in their young life,” he said. “How do you come out of something like this alive?”
Reese was so struck by Espinoza’s inspirational story of overcoming challenges that he made the documentary, unBROKEN, where she recounted her experiences to share with his NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and social service outreach class. Reese said he is particularly moved by how positive and upbeat Espinoza remains, and what a great mom she is.
“It’s Cal Poly Pomona,” he said. “Cal Poly Pomona is a school that heals. It’s just something about the faculty, the staff, the students and the aesthetics of the campus itself that heals. We have so many supportive programs from Renaissance Scholars to EOP to McNair Scholars to Project Rebound to our Veteran’s Center. Everyone who has a challenge on this campus, there is a place for you.”
‘I have a purpose’
Espinoza aspires to be a social worker and plans to pursue a master’s degree at Cal State LA in the fall.
Ruby Guillen, a veteran social worker who is one of Espinoza’s mentors, said that Espinoza’s life experiences coupled with her deep desire to help others with a similar background will make her a great social worker.
Guillen, who was in the foster care system and previously taught at Cal State LA, met Espinoza at a California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation awards event in 2021, where Espinoza was receiving a scholarship.
Former foster care youth don’t typically have a stable family structure and often struggle, so it is best to reach out to them, ask them about their homelife and build friendships, she said.
“Emma is incredibly brilliant,” Guillen said. “She is really smart and a quick learner. She is going to make changes in this world.”
The road to graduation hasn’t always been a smooth one. Espinoza said she has struggled in school at times, but her belief in herself was deeper than her doubts.
“I had to learn that I have a purpose,” she said. “I had to learn that I have a lot to offer, and that I didn’t have all of these experiences in life for nothing. Even during the tough times, I felt that even if this is not going how I wish, if I continue to show up and still continue to do my part and try to my best, I could be successful.”