A dozen Latino students from across majors had the opportunity to gather for an informal conversation this week with entrepreneur, philanthropist and author George L. Pla who relayed the obstacles, challenges, as well as the triumphs, of pursuing the American Dream.
During the exchange, Pla shared his life’s journey as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, growing up in Boyle Heights, being the first in his family to graduate from college to becoming a successful and influential Latino. Students realized that their own pursuits are no different: To earn a college degree and find success in their personal lives and future careers.
“I found that I had a lot of similarities with him, and it resonated with me,” said Citlally Contreras, a master’s student in anthropology who is graduating in May. “He faced obstacles to get where he is today. His drive and work ethics are inspiring. He’s an example of what people like me can achieve.”
Yesica Godinez, a mother of four and a psychology major who also is on track to graduate in May, aspires to a career as a special education teacher. She shared that Pla’s story hit close to home.
“I also came to this country from Mexico when I was 10. His story is like mine,” said Godinez, a first-generation college student who pursued higher education to learn more so she could help her 7-year-old autistic son. “Education is the key. He showed us that if you persevere, you can reach your dreams.”
Pla’s visit to Cal State Fullerton on Feb. 26, where he met with students inside the Chicana and Chicano Resource Center, was a precursor to his 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, free event on campus to discuss his first book “Power Shift: How Latinos in California Transformed Politics in America.” The event is open to students, the campus community and public. (See sidebar for details.)
Pla is founder, president and CEO of Cordoba Corp., a civil engineering, construction and program management firm he started at age 30 out of his home. The company, founded in 1983 on the premise to make a difference in the communities it serves, has 300 employees at seven offices across the state, including Santa Ana. He also employs CSUF graduates and offers college student internships.
At CSUF, Cordoba supports four student civil and environmental engineering projects, as well as student travel to an annual conference. This support, through the College of Engineering and Computer Science Corporate Partners Program, gives students experiential learning opportunities that prepare them to enter the workforce after graduation.
Pla told students that he could relate to their grit and drive for higher education, despite holding down jobs, commuting to college and helping their families. He also reminded them to stay determined, take pride in their Latino heritage and culture, and focus on what each has to offer future employers.
“First and foremost, graduate,” said Pla, who attended East Los Angeles College and Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He also holds a master’s degree in public administration from USC.
Pla’s book recounts the stories of 10 Los Angeles Latino leaders who transformed politics and government, including the first Mexican-American elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949 to leaders who served through the 20th century. He co-authored the book with David R. Ayón, senior strategist and adviser at Latino Decisions, and the forward is by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
He shared with students that he penned the book — a supplemental teaching tool for high schools, colleges and universities — to tell the history and lessons learned by Latino leaders who have transformed politics and government.
“I wrote this book so young people would learn about their history — and be proud of it.”