Taking His Place

December 05, 2012

Literature major Frank Tello
(Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Gifts to UCSC support life-changing scholarships for returning students like Frank.

Frank Tello
Cowell College ’13

Three decades ago, a high school counselor uttered five words that would haunt Frank Tello: “You are not college material.”

The counselor’s pronouncement followed him into the Navy. The words stalked him as he worked part-time unloading produce in a grocery store. They echoed around him as he raised his two children, as he worked nights as an assistant manager at a “big box” store, and as he watched his wages stall while those of his peers rose because they had college degrees.

Now 50, Tello is finally putting those words behind him.

Tello is a literature major at UC Santa Cruz and the recipient of a prestigious Karl S. Pister Leadership Opportunity Award, with plans to become a high school teacher. He said he wants to give a new generation of students something the guidance counselor refused to give him: hope, encouragement and a sense of purpose.

“My biggest goal is to tell students, there is an option.” Tello said.

A husky man with flecks of grey scattered through his thick, dark hair, Tello said he decided to give college a try after he was pushed to the brink by the stress of a job that had him working 12-15 hours a night. He enrolled in National Hispanic University and then Evergreen Valley College, where he earned A’s and B’s.

When he was accepted at five UC campuses, including Berkeley and Davis, he felt his life shift. He chose UCSC for the beautiful campus and the quality of its education. Now instead of supervising the unloading of supply trucks, the fluent Spanish speaker is studying Chaucer and Dickinson, and teaching himself Vietnamese.

“This place just changed my life,” said Tello, sitting at a table in the Stevenson College coffee shop, the sun shining through a stand of slender redwoods outside. “I learned so many things I never knew I could learn.”

Tello has studied Cold War history, the British canon, and Native American literature. He has held spirited discussions with young students and conferred with professors. His mind has opened, he said. He has gained confidence. Meanwhile, his 25-year-old son is following him to UCSC in the fall and his 27-year-old daughter is now at UC Berkeley.

Tello said his success has come because of the support both of his wife Eva Tello and the close-knit UCSC community. Along with the Pister scholarship of $10,000 a year, which allowed Tello to study full-time without having to hold down an outside job, he also received a Lifelong Learners grant and has found a home in the Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS) program.

“I see myself in a whole life I never imagined,” Tello said.