By Lea Endres
It all started with an errant piece of paper. When a classmate at Foshay Learning Center - a K-12 school in South Los Angeles - threw something at him, freshman Edgar Ayala retaliated by throwing something right back. But Edgar missed his intended target. The class's guest speaker, Ramin Bastani, was busy encouraging the students to attend the college fair being hosted at Foshay that weekend, and didn't notice the wadded up paper bounce off his shoulder. Edgar's homeroom teacher however, did, and doled out a particularly annoying punishment: spend Saturday at the college fair getting information for the rest of the class.
Edgar walked into the fair with a plan. He'd grab a bunch of flyers and leave - how would his teacher know how long he'd been there anyway? But as he walked past a man lecturing on SAT prep, he saw something unexpected: many of his peers. Listening. Surprised, Edgar stopped to listen, too.
College had never been part of Edgar's plans. A first-generation immigrant from El Salvador, he lived with his parents, grandmother and younger brother in a troubled neighborhood in South LA. His older brother was out of the house, already working, and Edgar assumed that he too would find a job right out of school to help support his family. Finishing high school would be hard enough; college was impossible. He knew that. But after hearing three different speakers, a flash of possibility had entered his mind. And then he saw a familiar face.
When Edgar walked up to him, Ramin asked the same question he'd asked all the other kids that afternoon: Are you planning on going to college? Edgar answered honestly that he'd never thought of it before today, had just assumed he couldn't. So Ramin told him about the Riordan Scholars - a program run by UCLA Anderson School of Management designed to expose high schoolers to business and leadership, and to help get them into college. Edgar began to feel hopeful. Then Ramin described the minimum GPA required to participate (a 3.0), and Edgar's face fell. His was a 1.8.
Then something unexpected happened. Instead of walking away like he knew he should, Edgar blurted out a simple, direct question: Will you help me get into college?
Ramin was taken aback. His commitment as a participant in the Riordan Fellows Program (a prestigious pre-MBA program) included community service, which was the reason he was at the (Riordan sponsored) college fair. He had the option of mentoring the high school scholars, but he much preferred the one-day projects he did outside of the program, like reading with kids at elementary schools or volunteering at children's hospitals. Short-term commitments.
He wasn't sure what to do with Edgar's request. Edgar clearly wasn't asking a generalized question - he was asking Ramin, personally, for his help. But what did that mean, exactly? Was the kid really serious? He gave Edgar his business card and said what he'd said to the students that had made lesser requests of him that day: send me an email. Of all the business cards Ramin handed out that Saturday, only one person ever emailed to follow up. And Edgar did so the very next day.
When they spoke, Ramin made it clear that the only chance Edgar had at getting into the Riordan program was to nail the three-part essay section of the application. He had to convince the admissions committee to take a risk on him, and that was going to take a lot of work. Edgar confessed that he wasn't the best writer, but really wanted to try. Ramin was in.
They spent the next few months talking on the phone and working together in the library at USC (Ramin's alma mater). They edited and re-worked numerous drafts as Ramin helped Edgar clarify and express his thoughts in writing.
"He was really strict with me at first," Edgar remembers. "He was like, 'I'm not going to put more time in than you.' If we were supposed to talk at seven, I had to call exactly at seven. He treated me with a lot of respect. Ramin saw that I was at step one, and he met me there."
As he worked on his essays, Edgar discovered his ultimate goal: to be the first in his family to graduate from college.
"I wasn't afraid to fail because Ramin said if I didn't get into Riordan that time, we'd keep applying every year until I did. No matter what, we were gonna work on it together."
No one was more surprised than Ramin about that. "If I'd been asked at the time to mentor someone, even for just a year, I would have said no way. The connotation of the word mentor is so heavy, there's all this responsibility and burden with it. But when I started working with Edgar, I decided to think of him as a friend, not a 'mentee.' I knew how to help a friend."
As it turned out, Edgar didn't have to wait to get into the program. That summer he got word that he would start his sophomore year as a Riordan Scholar.
"I think Ramin was more excited than I was when we found out!" Laughing, Edgar adds, "And then he told me that we only had a few years to clean up my grades, so we had to get to work."
For the next three years, they did exactly that, focusing on the big win: getting Edgar into college.
"It didn't seem real at first," Edgar says. "But I got to be around all these amazing people through the Riordan program. I saw older scholars - the seniors - who had been accepted into places like Harvard and the guest lecturers who ran companies, and I saw that I was as smart as they were. My mindset changed. I began striving for a better life, and was hopeful for the future."
Ramin knew it would be an adjustment initially, and told Edgar that some of his friends might not like that he was spending more time on school.
"He said I might lose friends, and I did. But he told me to stay strong, that what I was doing was right, that one day I'd end up being a leader in my community. Ramin was the most successful person I knew. I trusted him."
At the beginning of each semester Ramin and Edgar wrote out Edgar's academic and personal goals, and set incentives for meeting them. They met with his high school guidance counselor to see which colleges were a possibility and what kind of financial aid would be available. They talked and texted and had dinner with Edgar's family. Ramin introduced Edgar to his friends (including, Edgar beamingly recounts, a former Miss USA and a former Miss California).
Edgar was on track, his GPA climbing steadily. But during his senior year, his parents divorced and his dad left the house. So Edgar began working two jobs to help out. There was barely enough money for the mortgage, let alone expensive college application fees.
"I went back to the old way of thinking - get out of high school as fast as possible because my family needs money. I didn't want to do it (school) anymore. My dad was gone and my older brother was working all the time to support his own family. But Ramin was there. He helped with everything - the fees, my essays, letters of recommendation. He kept me motivated."
"I'm not going to pretend to be altruistic," Ramin says. "Everything was so organic with Edgar. I was committed and so was he. It was never a one-way street of just me giving; he showed up for me, too. And there were many days when he was the one motivating and inspiring me with his spirit and determination. I saw everything he was going through and I just wanted to help in whatever way I could. I wanted to have his back."
On May 21, 2008, Ramin sat next to Edgar's mother and grandmother, watching as Edgar, a soon-to-be freshman at California State Northridge, received his high school diploma.
Edgar's mother remembers, "I was speechless. I was proud to see my son walking across that stage with a plan in the works. Ramin's biggest impact on Edgar was giving him the ability to think outside the box and to never be afraid to accomplish his dreams."
Today, Edgar is a senior at CSUN. His goal of being the first in his family to graduate from college is in sight, and his community is pulling for him. "My friends don't really give me a hard time for not going to parties and stuff because they know I have to study to graduate." One of his cousins recently stopped Edgar on the street and said, "don't mess this up. Everyone's watching you."
They each credit the other for the successes they've shared over the past six years, but watching Ramin and Edgar together, it's clear that there's a powerful alchemy at work; the alchemy of what's possible when two people take a chance on each other. As Edgar says, "Ramin is more than a mentor; more than a friend. He's family."
Now that graduation is in sight, Edgar is looking to what's next. His passion is making music, but he knows the music industry is a tough one. So he's thinking about pursuing an advanced degree - in either business or communications - while continuing to work on his album, à la two of his heroes: Rivers Cuomo and J. Cole. (Cuomo attended Harvard University while fronting the band Weezer and Cole graduated magna cum laude from St. John's University while trying to break into the industry.)
Edgar is clear about one thing, though. If he decides to pursue business, he wants to be a Riordan Fellow like Ramin was when they first met. "That way, I can have the opportunity to make an impact in someone's life." Eyes lighting up, Edgar says, "I could even go back and speak at the same college fair." Where Ramin would, undoubtedly, cheer him on from the audience. A wadded up piece of paper at the ready.