From East Salinas to the Humphrey School: Q/A with Junior Summer Institute Fellow Gilbert Ramos
Gilbert Ramos is a young man with a mission: to make his hometown of Salinas, California, a better place to live, especially for families like his who live in poverty. His path to reaching that goal took an unexpected turn this summer, bringing Ramos to Minneapolis for the inaugural Junior Summer Institute (JSI) at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Ramos is one of 18 rising college seniors from around the country who participated in the JSI program, an intensive seven-week experience designed to prepare undergraduate students, mostly from underrepresented communities, to thrive in master’s degree programs and launch careers in public service.
Ramos is a first-generation college student. He earned his associate’s degree in political science at Hartnell Community College in Salinas, and then moved on to the University of California, Berkeley, where he is a senior with a double major in political science and legal studies.
His responses below have been edited for length and clarity.
What drove your decision to attend college?
East Salinas is home to legal and undocumented immigrants who pick lettuce for the world. They’re impoverished families who work hard but live in subpar housing, in the living rooms and garages of others. There’s also a lot of gang violence; growing up, I was at the center of drug and gang activity. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities to escape this lifestyle.
This was the environment in which my single mother raised her five boys. Her lack of formal education or specialized skills did not offer any advancement opportunities in her life. She saw education as a gateway for a better future and she instilled these beliefs into her children.
A turning point for me was when I became an intern at the California State Capitol, and realized that without a political voice, communities such as East Salinas fail to have their needs addressed by the people sitting at the table.
Growing up in Salinas really played a part in my development and drive to pursue any means to solve the issues impacting families who live there. When the town you deeply care about is ranked as the second least-educated city in the United States, and suffers from one of the highest youth homicide rates in California, it becomes a factor in the career you choose.
What led you to apply for the Junior Summer Institute program?
I heard of the Junior Summer Institute program through a class announcement. During an informational session, I heard about the program’s focus on gaining tools to assist disadvantaged communities. This spoke to me and was the driving factor in applying for the program. I found public policy to be a more effective route to positively impact the lives of a large number of individuals, instead of a one-by-one approach. I applied not only to prepare for a life as a public servant, but to understand what public policy really entailed.
Opportunities such as these come once in a lifetime for persons in disadvantaged communities. And I really mean that. Back home, many individuals I know are being incarcerated or denied employment for their past criminal records. Moreover, some individuals couldn’t afford to give up their jobs to accept an opportunity like this. I was overjoyed that I was being offered this chance to prepare for graduate school and gain the tools to conduct policy analysis.
Tell us about your Humphrey School JSI experience.
The program was incredible. From the morning walks across the Mississippi River bridge to late-night studying with the cohort, I honestly believe it was the best way I could have spent seven weeks of the summer. The program was challenging, stimulating and purposeful, and it prepared all of us for the rigor of graduate school and the application process.
What made the program manageable was the cohort of students who were together the entire time—studying, discussing problems, and supporting one another. Discussions that started in class usually continued in our residence hall. We would often analyze problems impacting communities and exchange ideas on how to address those issues.
The techniques I learned will be especially helpful in the future, as I hope to come up with thoughtful solutions to the problems facing my hometown of Salinas.
What are your plans for graduate school?
I plan to attend graduate school, and will definitely apply to the Humphrey School as well as several others. Before the JSI program, I had never heard of the Humphrey School. While I was there in the summertime, I thought to myself that the Humphrey School is a hidden gem, partly because of the strong faculty. I was surprised with the number of faculty who are not only involved in researching sustainable solutions for real problems, but also involved in the surrounding communities. As someone interested in contributing to the community where I come from, this was attractive to me.
While I’m unsure which degree program I’ll pursue, I’m interested in public policy, urban planning, or something related to local government. I also plan on getting a law degree.
What are your longer-term goals?
As an individual extremely interested in impacts of local government, I would like to serve as mayor of my hometown, the City of Salinas. If elected, I would ensure advancement opportunities are available for youth, and that resources are fairly allocated to support impoverished neighborhoods. Addressing the public safety issues impacting Salinas would also be a priority. The Junior Summer Institute at the Humphrey School has prepared me with invaluable skills to put forth policies to best serve my community.