I was not the student on the brochures.

You know what I mean — the ones plastered on college recruitment pamphlets all over the country. Those kids are dressed nicely, smiling, thrilled to be on campus. I was the son of a resilient mom, who worked retail and only wanted to give her four kids a better life. We’d lost our house back in Idaho and were now living in northern California, where we’d started from scratch again.

But here’s the thing: I was curious. About the world, and specifically about tech. I’d go to the supermarket and sit there, reading all the tech magazines; I watched every Apple keynote. But the business sector was worlds away. I was merely expected to get by in school and eventually join my cousins in the insulation trade. 

I had a thirst for learning and a counselor who took an interest in me, got me into some AP classes. But then things went wrong. I was mistakenly targeted by the police and roughed up pretty badly. I was so angry, and it put me on a bad path. I drifted into gang involvement, drinking, abusing drugs — one bad decision after the next. Any thoughts of college went up in smoke. That was never meant for me, I thought. I might as well just throw in the towel. They already look at me like a thug. I might as well be one. 

I got arrested the day after I turned 16 and ended up in a juvenile detention facility. When I got out on parole I wanted to change my act, to get straight, but I kept pushing the limits, and then I got the wrong ride to the wrong party and ended up back in juvie. I was crushed. This is going to be my life, I thought. Part of the cycle, never free, another statistic. 

The librarian broke it all down for me. She mapped out how I could make it work in real-world terms. Hope began to creep in. Maybe I have a shot. 

But that voice inside me, that thing that said, “This doesn’t have to be you,” was still there. The first thing I did when I was back inside was go to the facility library. I asked for all the business and finance books I could get my hands on. I began keeping a notebook, madly scribbling about assets, liabilities and real estate. I looked up terms I didn’t know. I read another book. Then another. Then another.

The librarian was amazing. She told me about community college and how I could go there after graduating from high school once I got out. She broke it all down for me, mapped out how I could make it work, in real-world terms. Hope began to creep in. Maybe I have a shot. 

My mom, let’s say, was skeptical. She’d had it with my antics by then, and when I finally got out a few months later she told me I couldn’t live with her. So here I was, looking for a job, unhoused, and trying to cling to a dream of going to college. Slowly, things turned around. I got a job at Costco; my girlfriend’s father rented me a room. I got into community college and eventually ended up presenting my research study at Stanford — Stanford! — on Bay Area Latinx startups and their sources of capital. I was working 40 hours a week, doing homework at 11 at night, but I was determined.

And then I found out I was going to be a dad. 

Obviously, this was not exactly planned. A few months later, I ended up getting married. I continued to work with my brothers running an automotive repair shop we’d formed a while back. Unfortunately, we were hit hard during COVID and had to downsize, and I had to look for employment elsewhere. But I marched on, and with a lot of hard work I eventually earned my associate’s degree. Now it was time for the biggest push yet: going to a four-year university and earning a bachelor’s.

Aaron Wojack

I had no intention of applying to UCLA — how could I get into UCLA? — but the counselor at the community college pushed me to do it, so I did. I was working doing DoorDash when my wife told me that the decision email from UCLA had come through. I didn’t even want to open it, but she kept saying, “Have faith.” So while we were in the car, we opened it. And she just started screaming, “You got in! You got in!” 

I was ecstatic — and overwhelmed. How was I going to manage this? How could I get housing in expensive Southern California? But the university had amazing people who helped guide me and make it all happen. My incredible dream was slowly coming true.

That first quarter I almost broke down. The coursework was rigorous and the campus enormous. I felt behind on everything: how I talked, how I dressed. Everything was a learning curve. But I just lined up the work: one task, then another, then another. 

I changed at UCLA. Became more structured. Because the standards were high, I had a choice: Meet them, or quit. And there was no way I was going to quit. I got into the Social Enterprise Academy and the Benjamin Graham Value Investing Program. I spoke to venture capitalists, fund managers. My professors provided amazing guidance. I began to see my path. 

I got pretty emotional at graduation, thinking about it all: every little fight I’d had, every mistake I’d made. But I viewed all of that as just the first chapter of my story. 

I will take UCLA with me wherever I go. And because of it, I’ll continue to write better and better chapters of my life.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.