When Rey Suarez started getting help from the San Diego County Office of Education's Migrant Education program, he didn't even know what college was.
At the time, he was in 7th grade at Lincoln Middle School in Vista. He stopped into a tutoring session organized by the Migrant Education team because his cousin was there, and it changed his life.
"Migrant Ed opened doors," he said. "If I didn't go to that class, that would have been it for me. I would have been a mechanic."
Suarez graduated from CSU San Marcos earlier this month with a degree in criminology and justice studies. He said he wants to use the knowledge and skills he gained in college to help disadvantaged communities.
He grew up in a low-income area of Vista and qualified for the Migrant Education program because his father traveled frequently for work, sometimes even out of state.
After getting help through middle school, he thought he was done with the program. Then, one day while he was in class at Vista High School, he got a pink slip, pulling him out of class.
"I thought I was in trouble," he said.
Instead, it was one of the Migrant Education aides who had called him out of class to ask if he wanted to go to college. From there, the Migrant Education team helped him secure resources, submit his application, and apply for financial aid.
"They never left my side," he said. "Without their help, I would have been lost."
Even when he visited the college, he was still assuming that he was going to go to a community college. It wasn't until he was leaving and saw the sign that he realized it was the university. Going straight to a four-year college from high school had him excited and nervous.
Suarez is the first person in his immediate family to go to college. His parents didn't make it past about 3rd grade, he said.
His mother, Victoria Suarez, said she was incredibly proud of him.
"That was my wish and goal for him to graduate and get a better life," she said. "I'm proud that he will have a better life for himself and his future family."
The road to graduation has been a difficult one for Suarez.
Though he has done well academically, his mother's health has been an issue. She was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes when he was in high school, and he has had to take time away from school to help her. Recently, friends of his at CSU San Marcos have created a campaign to raise money for the family to pay for a prosthetic leg for his mother, whose leg was amputated earlier this year.
Members of the Migrant Education team use Suarez as an example to inspire younger students, said Veronica Loera, a migrant services aide with the County Office of Education.
"We are very proud of Rey," she said. "I wish I had lots of Reys."
Not only has Suarez graduated high school and college, he also continues to volunteer to help other students in the Migrant Education program. He has tutored children and helped them read for the last three years at Bobier Elementary School and Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. The work gives him a strong sense of accomplishment, he said.
"It makes me feel needed and a part of something," he said. "If just feels nice."