A photo Jaime Oropeza at graduation.Jaime Oropeza has found his place in the world.

After high school, the Bloomington native says he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living, and “wandered aimlessly” working “dead end jobs.” In 2013, his life completely changed when his mother was in a serious accident. A family friend who works as a paralegal took on her legal case, and Oropeza, wanting to help his mom, started an internship with him so he could “learn the ropes.”

“I was deeply invested in my mother’s case, but in the legal field, everything moves pretty slowly, so while working on her case I worked on other people’s cases along the way,” Oropeza said.

The paralegal covered everything from probate to divorce, and the more Oropeza learned about the different areas of law, the more it made sense to him to enroll in a paralegal program. Although he didn’t find the classes he was looking for at San Bernardino Valley College, Oropeza decided to take some general education courses and see where that would take him.

“I never envisioned myself finishing at Valley at all,” he said.

But Oropeza, a first-generation student, discovered that he enjoyed the classes he was taking and being part of the Puente program, and as he learned new things and gained more confidence, he decided that instead of becoming a paralegal, he wanted to be a lawyer.

“I was a new person,” Oropeza said. “I was actually doing my work, applying myself for the first time ever in my academic career, getting good grades, and meeting the right professors.”

One of those professors, Rania Hamdy, “pushed me and saw potential in me and suggested I join the Honors program,” Oropeza said. Working with “phenomenal” professors inspired Oropeza to no longer look for shortcuts.

“This was the evolution of somebody who never applied himself academically,” he said. “I was enjoying the process and realizing how much I’d grown and how much I can do and the potential I have of reaching these new heights.”

Ready to earn his bachelor’s degree, Oropeza applied to eight schools, and it came down to UC Berkeley and UCLA. Wanting to stay close to his family while still receiving a strong education that would prepare him for law school, Oropeza selected UCLA. Armed with an associate’s degree in criminal justice from SBVC, Oropeza found himself undergoing yet another transformation during his second year in Los Angeles.

“The aim was to go to law school and be a lawyer to help people like my mom, but I came to a lot of realizations in my personal life,” Oropeza said. He began thinking back to growing up in Bloomington, and how he didn’t feel prepared for life after high school. Oropeza decided instead of going into law, he would become a high school English teacher.

“It’s been a journey of figuring myself out, and it came through the tragedy of my mother suffering,” Oropeza said. “I found myself in the purist way. I’ve gone through the whole spectrum of human emotions and situations and it all led me to where I am now.”

After graduating from UCLA this spring with a degree in philosophy, Oropeza will return to the Inland Empire to receive his teaching credential at UC Riverside.

“I want to be the teacher I wish was there for me at that age,” he said. “I have to pay it back, because I honestly wouldn’t be where I am without the mentors and professors I had at Valley. This was where I evolved academically.”

When Oropeza was choosing a major at SBVC in 2018, he couldn’t fathom that in four years, he would be earning a degree from one of the country’s best-known and respected universities.

“Even when everything tells you the odds are 99 percent against you, there is still that 1 percent chance — and that is more than enough if you are willing to try,” Oropeza said. “People often buy lottery tickets with less of a chance than that, so why not bet on yourself? Life is beautiful, life is a struggle, life is a beautiful struggle. If you’re willing to endure the struggle, which most of us have considering the area we’ve grown up in, then why not enjoy its beauty.”