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July 2024
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A Learning Experience

How I went from a high school dropout to a college commencement speaker.

By Erica Alfaro

Woman posing in cap and gownErica Alfaro

Both of my parents are from Santiago Asuncion, Oaxaca, Mexico. They came to the United States in hope of a better life when I was 13 years old. At that time, I didn’t know how to speak English. School was difficult for me, and one day my mother took me to work with her in the tomato fields. When I told her I was tired, she said, “This is our life. If you want a better life you need to get a good education.”

My parents never had the opportunity to go to school, and they barely know how to read or write, but they always knew the importance of a good education.

This lesson took a while for me to understand, but I ultimately earned my undergraduate degree and even gave the commencement speech at my college graduation ceremony. Education, including what I have learned in Toastmasters, has helped me achieve the life I wanted.

I never would have had the opportunity to give that commencement speech if it weren’t for a final assignment in my college sociology class. Each student was asked to give a 25-minute presentation on their life story. I had always struggled with presentations, but the assignment was worth 25% of my grade, and I was determined to do well.

I remembered a presentation given by a guest speaker from Toastmasters in a previous class. So I found a Toastmasters club and went to a meeting. A Latina woman gave a speech there, and she inspired me. I knew I wanted to learn to share my story like she had.

My goal was to give a 25-minute presentation about my family, not about myself. But the night before my speech, I began to reflect on my past. I realized that if I shared more about myself, I might inspire other students, just as I was inspired at my first Toastmasters meeting.

I began my presentation by talking about my family’s move to America, and how I struggled in school. I ultimately dropped out of high school when I was 15 and became pregnant. I moved away from my family to be with my baby’s father and lived with domestic abuse for many years.

I realized that if I shared more about myself, I might inspire other students, just as I was inspired at my first Toastmasters meeting.

One night, I made the decision to leave the abusive relationship, finish my schooling, and raise my baby with my family. I promised my son I’d make him proud of me. Ultimately, I kept that promise, and worked hard as my son continued to grow. I completed high school, went on to community college, then was admitted to a four-year university, California State University San Marcos.

College grad stands in fruit field with parents

I never thought of my journey as unique, or inspirational—at least not until I saw the reactions of my university classmates and professor when I told my story for my final assignment. I was later invited to be the commencement speaker. In the meantime, I had joined a Toastmasters club, and when I told club members the news, they celebrated with me and were there to support me and help me prepare.

An article that talked about my life was published after my graduation speech, and a local business owner read it. Without even knowing me, the individual decided to finance my education to help me earn a Master of Arts in Education from San Diego State University, which I completed in May 2019.

As I approached graduation once again, I took some photos with my parents. I posted one on my social media accounts that showed me standing in my cap and gown with them in the fields where they used to work. The post went viral. Our story made headlines all over the world. I was interviewed by different news channels, and my Toastmasters training kicked in. I was able to answer all the reporters’ questions, thanks to Table Topics practice.

After the media attention, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at numerous events. Once again, I was prepared because of Toastmasters. I had always had the dream of one day sharing my story to help people with the same background as me, and now I am able to fulfill that dream through a career in public speaking. I travel across America, sharing my story in the hopes that I can inspire someone to work hard and achieve their dreams—for themselves and their loved ones.

In the video below, Erica Alfaro is interviewed by CNN with her parents by her side.

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