Victor Rios

This video is from PBS's "Frontline." A segment was featured in the nationally broadcast KET series "Dropping Back In." You can view the entire "Dropping Back In" series online at droppingbackin.org.

“In 1994, I was introduced to the nation in a Frontline documentary,” said Victor Rios. “I was a gang member, a delinquent, and a high school dropout.”

But in the 18 years that followed, Rios earned his high school diploma, finished college, earned a PhD from the University of California Berkeley, and wrote two books on his life and juvenile delinquency.

He now teaches sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara and helps at-risk youth navigate the perils of adolescence.  He is also a family man with a wife and three children.

“To be this far into the future I feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes,” Rios noted.

Rios and his mother had made their way from Mexico to Oakland, Calif. Where they lived in some of the worst neighborhoods, facing violence, poverty and dilapidated housing,

Rios dropped out of school for the first time in eighth grade, mowing lawns to help his mother pay the bills. He returned to school, but only after joining a neighborhood gang to protect him from the violence around him at age 14.

He eventually dropped out of school again

Life on the streets became increasingly dangerous. He remembers stealing cars and sleeping in them.  At 15, his best friend, Smiley, was murdered by a rival gang.

“I began to think about what could happen to me and facing hard time in prison if I continued on this path like many of my friends,” said Rios, “or ending up dead.”

It was at this crucial moment that one adult was there for him, a teacher - Ms. Russ.

“She asked if I was okay and I said yes,” said Rios.  She tapped him on the shoulder and he began to cry.  “She gave me a hug and said, ‘Victor, when you’re ready to turn your life around, I’ll be here for you, but you have to do the work.’”

He began making a slow transformation, but street life was still an issue.  After picking a fight with someone at a rival school while already on probation, an officer warned him that if he witnessed one more incident he would be arrested and could be jailed for a long time.

That day Rios decided to turn around for good.  He went back to high school, graduated and went on to complete a college education.

He is now not only a sociology professor, but also mentors at-risk young men in Santa Barbara.

“If during the time I was on the street someone approached me and said, ‘hang in there man because when you’re 34, you’re going to have a beautiful family, a wonderful household, a great job, you’re going to be a PhD from Berkeley, you’re going to have written two books and you’re going to be an award-winning professor,’ I would have laughed,” said Rios. “So now it’s my job to let [these kids] know it’s not a joke; to know I believe in them the way that my teacher believed in me; to let them know that there are second chances.”

He is now working on a third book examining the achievement gap at Santa Barbara High School.

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