By Ray Huard
… A simple field trip to California State University San Marcos was the turning point for Cipriano Vargas, a migrant farm worker’s son whose life was so far removed from a college campus that he never gave college a thought.
“I didn’t even know it (CSU) existed,” said Vargas, who graduates this month from CSU San Marcos after establishing himself as a leader on and off campus.
He’s come far since he made that field trip when he was a ninth grader at Vista High School.
Vargas is a student trustee on the CSU Board of Trustees, a vice president of Associated Students Inc. at CSU San Marcos, vice president of Sigma Chi Fraternity, was a peer mentor for the College Assistance Migrant Program and has worked on voter registration drives and on immigration workshops.
He has won numerous awards for his work on the college campus and in the community and since January, he has been an intern with Vista Unified School District Superintendent Devin Vodicka.
Vodicka points to Vargas as a success story for Vista schools and a model for other students, especially those from similar backgrounds.
“Cipriano is a gifted leader who exemplifies the best qualities of our community in Vista Unified,” Vodicka said. “He is humble, hard-working and truly dedicated to service for the benefit of others. His accomplishments are a testament not only to his diligent efforts, but also to the support from his family and friends.”
CSU Dean of Students Dilcie Perez said “with Cipriano Vargas, there is hope for the future.”
“He has embraced every opportunity that anyone has given him,” Perez said. “You look at him and even me, as dean of students, I’m inspired.”
Despite his accomplishments and the praise he gets from others, Vargas is not one to brag. He speaks softly and said he is by nature a shy person who has had to train himself to open up.
Vargas comes from a large family. He has four brothers and four sisters, ranging in age from 4 to 28.
Both his parents emigrated to the United States from Mexico. His father now works as a machinist, but was a farm worker for much of his life, picking strawberries in Fallbrook. His mother is a homemaker.
Most of the adults in his family worked in low-paying jobs, earning enough to get by but not much more.
“I saw that as my own reality,” Vargas said. “Getting a high school degree would be a great accomplishment for me. I would have been happy with just that.”
Then came that field trip to CSU San Marcos.
On campus, Vargas saw other Latinos, students and graduates, people just like him.
“That was really when that see was planted in my head, if they can do it, I can do it,” Vargas said. “That really inspired me.”
At CSU, Vargas majored in sociology and minored in Spanish and women’s studies. Vargas said he was drawn to women’s studies because he wanted to see things “from a woman’s perspective and a feminist perspective.”
“Women have always been behind,” Vargas said. “That’s not fair, that’s just not equitable.”
Describing Vargas as “infectious,” Dean Perez said Vargas “has a very quiet spirit” and a wonderful sense of humor.
“He stayed on my radar because he came to me a said ‘I want your job,’” Perez said. “I came do my office one day and there was a sticky note on my door” from Vargas.
“You’re in my office,” the note read, said Perez.
Throughout his college career, Vargas as been “a mentor for his peers,” the dean said.
“He takes that role so seriously. He understands that there were people who paved the way for him and he realizes he has to pave the way for others,” Perez said. “He understands the gift that he’s been given, the gift of education, and the responsibility that goes along with it.”
After graduation, Vargas is heading to San Antonio for teacher training with Teach for America, a national organization which recruits recent college graduates and professional to teach for two years in low income urban and rural public schools.
Starting next fall, Vargas will co-teach a kindergarten class at KIPP Charter School in San Antonio.
“I wanted to focus on bi-lingual graduation and that’s where they placed me,” Vargas said. “At first, I was a little hesitant because I have little experience working with little children.”
Long term, Vargas said he plans to get a master’s degree in education and a law degree. He said he wants to apply what he learns about the law in developing policies in education.
“I just want to get that critical thinking that lawyers have and incorporate that into education,” Vargas said. “I have a great appreciation for the law. I like to understand how the law works.”
Whatever he does, Perez said “I know he’s going to do great things in a very humble way.”
Vargas said his time interning with Vodicka gave him practical insight into how a school district operates and the skills needed to manage it.
“He and his administration have really switched the perspective of how people see the district,” Vargas said. “Just because resources are limited, that doesn’t prevent the district from being a top performer in the next couple of years.”
Vodicka’s leadership style also is one Vargas said he’ll try to emulate.
“He’s not your traditional leader of being the boss. He likes to get things done collectively,” Vargas said. “He makes you part of the decision.”
Vargas said he’s hoping his experience in Texas will add to his practical knowledge.
“It’s always important to be conscious of other states and what they’re doing,” Vargas said.
Perez said she has this advice for Vargas’ venture to Texas: “you better not stay there.”
Not to worry, Vargas said.
“This is my community so I definitely want to come back,” Vargas said.