June 2, 2006

Grossmont College commencement speaker credits community college for remarkable turnaround

Below-average high-school grad on this way to UCLA

When Andrew Valle learned he had been selected from a group of Grossmont College honor graduates to speak at Thursday’s commencement, he knew right away what the focus of his address would be.

“The reason I decided to enter my name as a potential speaker was, I wanted to say to the graduates, ‘hey, I am you,’” said Valle, who turns 21 just two days before receiving his associate of science degree in biology in preparation for his transfer to UCLA. “I want them to see someone who didn’t start college with 4.0 GPA, who knew what they wanted to do with their lives. I might have a good GPA (grade point average) now, but I wasn’t always like that. I started with a 2.0 GPA out of high school. My first year at Grossmont, I was unsure where I saw myself going.”

Valle describes himself as a “huge advocate” of community college, saying it was a career decision-making class that he took after an initial, somewhat foundering start, that opened his eyes to the possibility of pursuing medicine. Counselor James Canady was the instructor of the class that proved to be such an epiphany.

Grossmont College student commencement speaker Andrew Valle poses (far right), for a family photo. With him are, from left: sister, Monica, his father, Richard, Union City vice mayor; and his mother, Barbara, president of the New Haven Unified School District Board of Trustees.

“I always had an interest in science and biology,” Valle said. “I remember one of the questions asked in an assessment was, ‘do you like to take things apart and put them back together again?’ The assessment came back with the result that I should consider becoming a doctor. I was totally startled by that, but it got me to thinking. And then, it was, like, wow, it suddenly made sense. That’s when I finally buckled down and that’s when I turned my life around.”

Graduating from Grossmont College with a 3.8 GPA, Valle has been accepted for admission by five UC schools: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD, UC Irvine and UC Davis. He chose UCLA on the basis of its reputation in the medical community. There, he’ll be majoring in biological science, with an eventual goal of obtaining a medical degree from Stanford University. He ultimately wants to enter the field of reconstructive surgery.

His decision three years ago to attend Grossmont was more happenstance than due to any planning, Valle said. His older sister was at Grossmont, and it was at his father’s urging to join his sister there that he made the move from his hometown further north.

A different life

Valle grew up in California’s Bay Area in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Union City, where gang violence and crime, he said, are a part of the landscape. Out on these streets, any talk of going to college would be greeted with derision.

“It was a place where, when someone said they were going to college, they would be mocked with, ‘you momma’s boy!’,’’ reads a sentence from Valle’s commencement speech.

The speech also describes how a childhood friend became a member of the Norteños street gang.

“From then on, the only time I would see him was on the street corner drinking and getting high,” Valle wrote.

Three years ago, he received a phone call that his friend, Michael, was dead.

“Earlier that night, his mother, in a drug-induced rage, shot and killed him,” Valle wrote.

Union City is a tough community, but one in which the Valle family has strong roots. Andrews’ grandparents call the city home. His father, Richard, has lived there since his youth and is currently the city’s vice mayor. The elder Valle is also a candidate in the June 6 election for a seat on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Andrew’s mother, Barbara, is president of the New Haven Unified School District Board of Trustees.

His parents first met as students at James Logan High School, which Andrew Valle also attended and graduated from in 2003.

“I wasn’t motivated as a high school student – I was more focused on music,” Valle said. “It was a huge passion of mine. Instead of studying, I spent countless hours with my music.”

Percussion section leader of his high school band, Valle led his drum line and band to four consecutive Western Marching Band Championships, and has performed in Pasadena’s Rose Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. He has also toured the U.S. in competition as a member of the World Champion Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps.

While his obsession with music probably cost him his grades in high school, Valle hopes that it’ll give him an edge when it comes time for medical school.

“They say if you have a strong interest in something beyond just academics, your chances at medical school are better,” said Valle, who plans to join UCLA’s marching band.

Although it’s been three years since Valle has been part of a band, whenever he went back home during semester breaks, he made it a point to return to his high school to help with Logan High’s percussion line, along with another school’s in Modesto.

“Plus, I’m always playing on my drum pad – it’s how I wind down at the end of the day,” he said.

It is during those trips home that Valle is reminded how far he has come.

“People who knew me from back in the day – when I was so into my music – when they hear I’m headed to UCLA and plan to become a surgeon someday, they just are so blown away,” he said.

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