Mason Grad Credits His Success to EIP Program

Posted: August 3, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Rey Banks

With his slight build and long, delicate fingers, Juan Pacheco more resembles a young college student than a thug, although he has been both. He is also a graduate of George Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), an innovative, multiyear college preparatory program for high school students. EIP is offered through University Life and is held on the Fairfax and Prince William Campuses. The program is free for students who want to further their education, but who may not have the means and support to do so. Students are recommended for the program by guidance counselors or teachers and a member of their community or local minister.

Today, Pacheco is a dedicated, hardworking student and an animated, gifted storyteller determined to make a difference in the world, but he wasn’t always. Wearing the uniform of the hip, urban set—baggy pants, Timberland boots, two bandanas, and a baseball cap—Juan’s appearance could make you want to cross the street to avoid coming into close proximity. But when he peels off the layers of clothing and dons a white coat and stethoscope, he is transformed into the studious person once referred to by his peers as “Mr. Potato Head.” By removing the layers of clothing, his actions are meant to symbolize peeling off the association of poverty, violence, and incarceration and revealing success.

This is just what he did at Mason last week when he spoke to a group of EIP participants. The students were enraptured as he told his story. His talk even attracted local media—News Channel 8 sent a reporter and camera for a spot on its evening broadcast. It wasn’t the first time Juan had been in front of a camera or a reporter. His “props” include a large album crammed with newspaper articles, accolades, certificates, and even a picture with Gov. Mark Warner. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to warn the community of the dangers and temptations that exist for today’s youth. “Reach for your personal best,” he extolled the group last week, “and don’t look to others for approval of who you are.” If Pacheco hadn’t followed that same advice, his would be a completely different story.

A Mason graduate who had a 3.8 GPA in chemistry and biology, Pacheco has his sights set on a master’s degree in public health, medical school, and a life in El Salvador, his country of birth, where he wants to give young people something he didn’t have while growing up there—hope.

Pacheco doesn’t like talking about his gang years, the five stints in jail, or the violence he participated in and witnessed. Dwelling on that is where law makers and law enforcement go wrong, he says. He prefers instead to talk about the positive aspects of his life and how preventative measures are needed to stop the flow of gang activity that has swept Northern Virginia in the last decade. He is concerned about the amount of state and federal dollars being directed at prosecution, deportation efforts, and incarceration instead of education, facilitation of culturally appropriate activities, and language and work skills assistance.

When asked about the recent brutality seen in gang activity, Pacheco says the level of violence and amount of activity have always been there. What is different is the amount of focus and attention it is receiving from the media. Pacheco would like to see a different approach, such as one that involves programs like EIP and Barrios Unidos of Northern Virginia, where he serves as an outreach coordinator.

Pacheco attributes much of his success to a dedicated family; EIP, which he joined in the eighth grade; and Hortensia Cadenas, EIP director. Without her guidance and the help of EIP, Juan easily admits he probably wouldn’t be where he is today. “Juan is such a success story,” says Cadenas. “I bring him in to talk to students, and his personal experiences are such motivation.”

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