This story was written and submitted by Cal State Los Angeles

When Sergio Manzo graduates from Cal State LA in May, he will culminate a journey of resilience that dates back to his first college class 12 years ago—and to his youth growing up in the housing projects of Los Angeles’ Eastside.

Manzo, 29, will graduate summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services. He will begin a Master of Social Work program at USC in the fall on the way to a career working in juvenile services. 

“We’re all on different timelines,” Manzo says. “Our time will shine one day. We will all have our chance to make an impact if we want to.” 

For many years, he had to wonder whether his time would ever arrive. 

Manzo put his dreams on pause at 17, when he had to drop out of East Los Angeles College (ELAC) to work two full-time jobs to provide for his family, including two younger siblings.  

But at age 25, following the encouragement of friends, he decided to resume his education. He returned to ELAC with the goal of completing his associate degree before transferring to Cal State LA for his bachelor’s—and challenged himself to do it all in just four years while continuing to work.   

After arriving at Cal State LA in fall 2018, Manzo met two professors who would help shape his years on campus. Akhila L. Ananth, an assistant professor of criminal justice, motivated Manzo to seek to advance his career goals despite apprehensions about navigating school after so many years. Jose Juarez, an adjunct professor and lecturer, inspired Manzo to pursue a career in criminal justice. 

“His story really motivates you,” says Juarez, who is a probation officer and social worker. “He has this drive in him to really make a difference and help people who come from a lot of disadvantages and risk factors in their life.”

Manzo gained valuable experience in the field through Civic Engagement in Criminal Justice, an elective course in his major that gives students the opportunity to apply knowledge gained in the classroom in a criminal justice-related field placement. 

His internship at his placement site, 2nd Call, an organization that provides employment support services to previously incarcerated individuals, gave him a vision for his future career in juvenile justice interventions as a social worker.  

“I used to tell myself, ‘These gangsters, they’re bad people,’” Manzo says. “But we don’t know their upbringing. We don’t know the difficult circumstances that they go through.” 

“Choosing a career in criminal justice is about making an impact,” he says, noting his desire to help others who have experienced similar circumstances.    

In his own life, at age 10, Manzo struggled to understand why his father left the family, causing them to move from one housing project to another. 

“I had a lot of resentment toward my dad, and I felt that the decision he made delayed us,” Manzo says. “Now, I try to be in his shoes and understand.”  

Making connections between his experiences and his textbooks, Manzo says he realizes that his father lacked adequate support throughout his life. Today, Manzo expresses sincere gratitude for the support system he has found since returning to college. 

This fall, Manzo will begin a Master of Social Work program at USC through the Public Child Welfare workforce development and stipend program. The program will lead to his employment at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. 

At USC, he hopes to become a student ambassador and provide support to first-year undergraduate and transfer students.

“I feel I have a purpose in life when I help someone,” he says, “and that, to me, is what life is meant to be.”

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