Cal State East Bay student lived homeless, overcame adversity during path to graduation
Louie Casillas Ramos is a Pioneer. But not just because of his affinity for Cal State East Bay. His four-year journey has been filled with obstacles and challenges, but Ramos has persevered above them all and will graduate this week with a degree in Liberal Studies, embodying the spirit of what it means to pioneer.
Ramos, 22, was born and raised in Delano, Calif., a small town in the Central Valley where he says his choices after graduation were farming or gang affiliation. For Ramos, neither appealed to him, and as the eldest of eight siblings, he felt the pressure of being an example for his younger siblings and possibly a provider at some point.
“I have too many [siblings] looking up to me; I can’t give up,” Ramos said.
Inspired by his grandparents, who were a part of the United Farm Workers, which focused on underdog rights in the community, Ramos knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps in the way of serving his community — perhaps becoming the next Cesar Chavez.
His life-changing moment would come while sitting in his high school counselor’s office and seeing a Cal State East Bay poster on her wall that read “Per Aspera Ad Astra,” which translates to “Through adversity to the stars.” And, in this moment, he made his decision to leave the Central Valley and be the first in his family to attend college.
Laughing Through Adversity
As Ramos tells his story, he belts out an occasional big laugh in between the rough parts.
There was the summer he spent searching for open classrooms to sleep in because he had nowhere to live and didn’t feel comfortable staying with friends.
“Company is like fish and after three days they get bad,” he said with a laugh.
While his peers were focused on which sources to cite in their research papers, Ramos instead had daily decisions to make about whether to buy a box of cereal and avoid hunger or do laundry and avoid the ridicule of dirtied clothing.
For Ramos, adversity and struggle was nothing new as this had been his way of life. But he credits his challenging childhood — of growing up economically disadvantaged in a town ravaged by gangs and drugs — for providing him the necessary strength and tools to sustain himself persevere in college. Many times during that period of homelessness, Ramos said the floodgates of tears would come, but in between, he would tell himself that he was “houseless, not homeless,” and he would make his home wherever he laid his head.
In those moments of doubt and worry, Ramos would think back to that poster and remember the university’s motto.
“The quote kept me going because it resonated with me and is my story,” Ramos said. “It followed me like a verbal guardian angel.”
In 2016, a friend told Ramos about a program on campus called Pioneers for H.O.P.E. which supports the university’s food and housing insecure students. He recalls at first reacting in anger because he did not want to identify as one of the students the program is designed to support. But his friend pressed on and Ramos finally agreed to go.
With the support of H.O.P.E. Ramos was able to shift his focus to his studies and not have to worry so much about his next meal.
“Being part of the founding advisory board was life-changing because it gave me a sense of purpose and hope,” he said. “It let me know that I too could be a positive force for someone else facing my same adversity.”
As life stabilized, Ramos began volunteering with the program and continues to work in the career closet where he helps students find free professional clothing for job interviews.
Life these days is a far cry from sleeping in classrooms. He’s moving upward and onward toward the stars, leaving adversity behind.
Ramos currently rents a home in Hayward and said his landlord has been supportive and his roommates have been “awesome.” He works two jobs and has an internship at the Office of Sustainability.
While his future plans include traveling the world, Ramos also makes it a point in between his signature laugh, to express how he wants to help underprivileged youth.
Truly a pioneer, Ramos, now a first-generation graduate, has come, settled, explored and conquered.