Interviewed by Glen Kinoshita, Director, MultiEthnic Programs.
The world of Christian Higher Education is often a picture of many worlds coming together. Within the student body, though they may be a minority numerically, there are students who come from diverse ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. These students may come from urban high schools, speak a different language other than English, and be the first in their family to attend college.
Such was David Benavides. During his time at Biola University, David struggled to adjust to a new world while pursuing his education. Despite the many ups and downs he encountered, he learned a great deal and gained a clearer vision for his life while at Biola. Now a Biola alumnus, David continues to faithfully follow his vision in serving the community he came from. Here he shares his journey to and from Biola and how he currently serves his community on a daily basis.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from and how does that shape who you are today?
DB: I am a second generation Mexican American. Both of my parents come from Mexico but met in Los Angeles. I am from East Los Angeles and the fourth of seven kids. While growing up, my father did maintenance work for the county of Los Angeles; my mother raised us at home. In regards to their schooling, my father made it to fifth grade and my mother to seventh grade before they had to work and support their family. As a result, education was instilled as a priority for my siblings and myself. My parents wanted us to be able to accomplish what they were not able to.
Growing up I saw a lot of my friends make some poor choices in life. Many joined tagging crews, which eventually turned into gangs. There was a lot of drug activity in the neighborhood as well. Much of this didn’t appeal to me as a youngster. This, no doubt, was because of the relationship I had with my father who was a strong Christian, and a small Pentecostal church I attended in East LA. This small church community was what I grew up in and was what influenced me to stay on course.
How did you hear about Biola?
DB: All of my schooling prior to college was within the LA Unified School District. I had been doing well in school and am the first in my family to even consider coming to college so it was new, unchartered territory. There were some college/admissions counselors in my magnet school in L.A. who helped us to fill out applications for admission and financial aid. Somewhere out there I heard that there were Christian colleges and Biola [was] one of them. It interested me to be able to pursue a Christian education and further my knowledge of the Bible so I did some research on Biola. I decided to apply at the end of my senior year in high school.
Being a first generation college student, I really was in need of financial aid. In the process of the admissions process I was one of the first students to be awarded the SURGE (Students of Under-Represented Groups of Ethnicity) scholarship award. This was one of the major factors that opened up the door for me to attend Biola. The SURGE Scholarship Award also included being a participant in a yearlong program that was a life transforming experience for me.
What was it like transitioning from High School in East Los Angeles to the Biola community?
DB: I remember after my senior year in high school I worked a summer job and saved money because my parents were not going to be able to assist me with the finances required to go to college. I worked hard that summer and saved about $2,000 which I thought would get me through my entire freshman year. I came to register for classes and had to pay $1,800 plus the cost for my books. Obviously $2,000 was not going to get me through my first year.
Entering Biola was culture shock for me. I remember driving up in an old beat up Honda Accord. We didn’t own any luggage so I brought all my belongings in two large plastic trash bags. After I had checked into my dorm room another student who was to be my roommate pulled up with his parents and a U-Haul in back of the car they were driving. He then proceeded to move into the same room I was in with his stereo systems and computers.
All of this was a very new experience for me. I anticipated having the same kind of relationships at a Christian college similar to what I had grown accustomed to in my church, which was a very close tight knit community. What I had to contend with immediately was how different urban Latino culture in East Los Angeles was from white middle class suburban culture, which is what the majority of students at Biola come from.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable with the academics. English is my second language; I speak Spanish when I am at home. Even though I took honors classes at my high school, when I took an English class like “Criticism and Composition” at Biola I almost flunked. I didn’t understand the lingo and the jargon they were using in class. It was a different culture in so many aspects. It seemed like all the other students were all familiar with the vocabulary and writing style from their previous learning environment, or maybe due to the fact that their parents went to college before them.
Many times in my freshman year I wondered if I was going to make it. But I worked hard and also received a lot of support from other students who were in the SURGE program who were going through very similar experiences. The relationships I formed in this group not only supported me through my first year but also continued on through the remainder of my time in college.
Since Biola, what have you been doing?
DB: My Biola experience challenged me to think about how my faith should intersect with my life choices and direction. In my second year at Biola I got involved with an urban youth outreach program called Kidworks. I was involved for a summer living in a low-income part of Santa Ana living out my faith amongst the youth in that community.
At the end of those eight weeks I reflected back and felt I was called to serve in these challenging situations. I felt as Christians we are called to care for the less fortunate and the poor. I made a long-term commitment to Kidworks and moved to Santa Ana. Eventually I became the director of the ministry. In order for me to make significant impact on lives and change in the community I needed to be a part of that community.
Eventually I considered being involved in community revitalization and local city government. It prompted me to step into realms where policy is set and change can really happen. As a result I ran for the office of City Council in the city of Santa Ana in November 2006 and was elected to be the representative for my district, which is very under-served. All of this stems from my Christian faith where I feel we are to get out of our comfort zones and serve where people are neglected as well as being committed to more cross-cultural ministries.
What does the responsibility of serving in the City Council of Santa Ana consist of?
DB: Essentially, the City Council consists of seven members. The city of Santa Ana is divided up into six districts and there is a representative for each district along with a mayor, which makes up the seventh seat. The City Council makes recommendations and decisions on policies, which gives direction to our city manager and chief of police. Responsibilities consist of meetings each month where we discuss aspects of budget and improvements on public service.
I also spend time going out into the community and participating in meetings with people in the neighborhood, hearing the concerns and issues the residents have and then being their voice on the counsel when decisions are made. I communicate with various community service leaders regarding the needs the residents are expressing. It is a position of influence, which I hope to use as a positive vehicle for change.
In what ways did Biola equip you for what you are doing today?
DB: My experience at Biola had a lot of positive aspects to it. There were also many challenges. It was a culture shock being one of a few Latinos, one of the few who come from an urban, lower income neighborhood in the midst of a college that is very suburban and middle class in their thinking. There was not much awareness regarding the life and culture students of color from urban backgrounds come from.
During my Freshman year there were a lot of anti-immigrant sentiments taking place in government policies and hearing the attitudes of students was a shock to me because it was the last thing I expected to hear from Christians. Here I was, a first-generation student trying to make it as the first in my family to go to college and I had to deal with all this. It forced me to come to terms with my ethnic identity; it forced me to deal with how I saw Christianity. How does our faith intersect with diversity and poor communities?
There was a lot of positive aspects [in] my time at Biola which equipped me but it was also the challenges that forced me to deal with a lot of the [essentials] to my personhood and my faith. I challenged myself to get out and make a difference and to have a say. Do we just stay comfortable and complacent or do we make a conscious commitment to make a difference? My Biola experience, in many different facets, helped to equip me for what I am doing today. Much of what I saw that was lacking in Christianity in terms of caring for the poor and living our my faith in diverse ethnic communities forced me to make a commitment to intentionally step into these realities and live out what I believe is central to my faith in Christ.
Today, I am one of the youngest council persons in the state of California. It is a journey, to be a Latino male from East Los Angeles serving in this capacity. I know there are others at Biola who come from similar backgrounds and experiences as I have and so that is why I am still involved in the Biola community, serving on the alumni board. I hope I can also be of encouragement to those, like me, who have come from an urban and Latino background, to pursue education and make a difference. As people of God we need to be present in poor communities and bringing about change for the better. We need to show the world that we do care for those less fortunate as well as [be] a model for racial reconciliation in the world.