Classroom Was Scarier Than Jail for Mt. SAC Grad

WALNUT, Calif.-—It would be an understatement to say that Joe Louis has had a scary past. As a gangbanger, he was shot at, stabbed at, and was incarcerated with killers and gangsters. But nothing—not even jail—was scarier for Louis than the classroom, especially his English and statistics classes at Mt. San Antonio College.

“The fear I had from that wild lifestyle paled in comparison to the fear I had of going to school—any school,” said Louis, who will graduate Friday night (June 13) as a member of Mt. SAC’s Class of 2014 with an associate degree in social behavioral sciences. “Nothing that I knew in gang life applied here,” he says. “College was so scary, because it was completely different from what I was used to.”

Walking at graduation will seem worlds away from where Louis began in South Gate. He attended 11 different schools from childhood through adolescence; he repeated 10th grade twice! At age 13, he joined a South Gate gang and bought drugs with the money his mother gave him, leading to an enslaving addiction. Instead of marching with his graduating high school class in 2004, Louis was in a hotel room doing methamphetamine.

He was eventually convicted on gun possession charges and landed in the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail for a year.

“Going to jail is rather easy, because you don’t have to do anything,” he says. “You just have to react. But in college, you have to perform and do what is expected of you.”

Eventually Louis enrolled in a 12-step addiction program and got help from a treatment center on an outpatient basis. Friends recommended Mt. SAC as a good school where he could put his life on track. He enrolled in 2006, but dropped out after two semesters only to return in 2012.

“I was afraid of all the math and English I would have to take,” he recalls. “It seemed so daunting, but I was determined to stick with it.”

With help from his professors and the college’s student support programs, Louis was able to overcome his fear, acclimate to college life, and perform well in his classes. “They encouraged me and convinced me that I could do this,” he says.

Academically, the 29-year-old La Puente resident is now on the success fast track. In less than two weeks after he graduates from Mt. SAC, Louis will begin classes at Cal State L.A. en route to a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation services. But the train doesn’t stop there. He plans to go on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees and eventually become a counselor in either an educational or rehabilitation setting.

“I want to help those who are where I once was to give them hope and encouragement,” he says.

While Joe Louis knows he can’t change the past, he’s convinced he can shape his future. “Now, I’m doing things that I can be proud of . . . and without the fear,” he says.


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