Success coach overcomes scarred childhood
February 14, 2023
Alfonso Garcia was 6 years old when he and his mother crossed the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing his abusive alcoholic father.
He says the sound of bullets fired by U.S. Border Patrol agents and his mother’s screams are forever engrained in his memories.
The special populations success coach uses his experience to guide students of varied backgrounds: veterans, athletes, international, undocumented and those who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I like to go in depth with what else I can offer them as far as services that we have here,” he said. “I want to do my best.”
Taking the time
The journey to get where he is now wasn’t easy.
After crossing the border, Garcia and his mother walked to Chicago expecting to meet their relatives.
But no one was there.
They didn’t know the language and weren’t in the country legally. Going back to Mexico was not an option.
“I remember we just lived under the bridge by Lawrence and Lake Shore Drive,” Garcia said. “We just stayed there. We also lived in abandoned buildings and parks.”
They endured hunger, cold and sickness for a year. Then one cold, early morning in February, Garcia’s mother started coughing up blood.
They went to John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital in Cook County, which helps immigrants and low-income people.
After nine hours, Garcia was told his mother only had six months to live.
“It was hard,” Garcia said. “And I didn’t know what to do.”
I remember we just lived under the bridge…
— Alfonso Garcia, LULAC adviser and success coach
Remembering these moments isn’t easy for Garcia.
It wasn’t possible until he started going to therapy many years later.
His voice broke and his eyes welled with tears as he spoke. Occasionally, he had to wipe the tears with his scarf. But he says he is happy that he can tell his story now.
Three months after the hospital visit, the only person Garcia loved died in his arms.
The last time Garcia saw his mother was when her body was cremated. He left with her ashes in a small box.
Losing his mother
For 15 years, Garcia remained homeless. Then, at 22, he decided something had to change.
He enrolled in college. Every day from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. he went to Harry S. Truman College.
Garcia learned to speak English and later transferred to the University of Illinois Chicago, where he got his master’s in Latino policies.
Afterward he spent 25 years in the education field with public and private schools and community colleges in Chicago.
Garcia never lost the pride of being Latino in a foreign country; whenever he has the time to speak Spanish he does it fluently and proudly.
Garcia has worked at Eastfield two years and is also adviser for the campus chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens.
LULAC is the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States.
As the adviser, Garcia oversees the organization and assists the president. Cecilia Cruz, sonography major and LULAC president, met Garcia when he greeted her as she read in her favorite reading nook. One day he gave her his business card, and Cruz decided to visit him because she’d never been to a success coach before.
I have time for you…
— Alfonso Garcia, LULAC adviser and success coach
“When I first went in, it was for career advice,” Cruz said. “I was an associate of arts [major] because it’s a broad one.”
But Garcia knew that Cruz wanted to do more.
“He’s like, ‘you don’t really like to do that. Right?’ And I was like, ‘I just don’t know what I want to do.’ But he took the time,” Cruz said.
She had walked into his office without notice and was afraid she was taking time away from other students, but he reassured her.
“I was like, ‘I’m sorry. I know it was last minute. You could go ahead and take somebody else’ and he’s like ‘no. I have time for you it’s fine,’” she said.
During their conversation, she mentioned a career in the medical field. Garcia made her an appointment with a pathway specialist for the next day, which led Cruz’s sonography major.
‘You can do it’
Cruz says Garcia is confident, motivational and someone she can confide in. She used to work with him in the C building, and said she saw how he helped others the way he helped her.
“When he gets international students, he just makes them feel comfortable,” Cruz said. “He shows them the same things he showed me. He showed everybody else the food pantry, counseling services, or if they needed life advice.”
Success coach Jaime Martinez says he will never forget Garcia.
“He was one of the first people that I will never forget because he made me feel very welcome,” he said. “He was very outgoing and just made me feel part of the team very quickly.”
Anytime Martinez has a question or needs help, Garcia is there.
“I can always go in and ask for him because he just has that type of personality where he can connect with students,” Martinez said.
Garcia says remembering his mother gives him strength, and he uses that strength to help other immigrant students succeed.
“It’s possible,” he said. “No one wanted to give a penny to me, but I’m an example that you can do it.”