A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2016 Issue

Ivy League Inspiration

Ivy League Inspiration

Wildcat proves hard work pays off

I can say I am flesh-and-bone proof dreams do come true.

Twenty-four units of classes, three jobs, and no sleep was easy for Diego Yepez. All the double-major in math and philosophy had to do for motivation was think back to the summers he spent waking at 3 a.m. to pick apples, cherries, and pears to pay his way through college.

Now a PhD candidate on a full special student scholarship to Harvard University, he says he owes it all to four Chico State professors—Thomas Imhoff, Zanja Yudell, and Robert Jones in the Department of Philosophy and Christopher Marks in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. They not only recognized his potential but also told him to chase it.

“They said if I put in the work, anything was possible,” Yepez recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be smart.’”

Yepez was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and a young boy, he flip-flopped between schools in the United States and his native country as his parents migrated season-ally for farm work. As a teen, he labored alongside his brothers.

Sweating and thirsty, surrounded by spiders and snakes, and getting rashes from pesticides, he envisioned a better future.

“That’s why taking 24 units, three jobs, and staying up all night seems so easy,” he said. “It’s not Monday to Monday where you never rest.”

His first semester at Chico State, he lived in his car until he was able to find housing he could afford. The dream—and making his parents proud—kept him going.

He met Imhoff that first year and the professor immediately captivated him. Yepez took as many of his classes as possible, even when they didn’t count toward his degree.

His sophomore year, he met Marks and Yudell.

Yepez earned a full scholarship to Harvard University.

Diego Yepez earned a full special student scholarship to Harvard University and began his PhD program in fall 2016. (Jessica Bartlett/Student Photographer)

Humility. Hard work. Harvard.

“They were just always there for me, whatever I needed, and not always math or philosophy,” he said.

They were equally impressed, describing Yepez as confident, earnest, and among the most driven students they’ve ever taught. It was clear he had an exceptionally inquisitive mind.

“He was never satisfied with what you gave him in lecture,” Marks said.

As his curricula plateaued, he pressed his professors for more options. They told him about an advanced reading course that hadn’t been offered in years and Yepez saw to its resurrection. He filled open seats with other students, an outcome that restored another two canceled classes.

“When you have a student like that in your class, it makes it better for everybody,” Yudell said.

Jones also liked the mental challenges Yepez lobbed his way. The two bonded through the Philosophy Club, which Jones advised, and met socially at Madison Bear Garden to talk philosophy and about perceptions of working-class students entering the upper echelons of academia.

His sophomore year, Yepez asked Imhoff about the possibility of being admitted to an Ivy League school.

“He nodded and kind of laughed and said if I put in the work, anything was possible,” he said.

Yudell went on sabbatical and Yepez decided that by the time his mentor returned he’d accomplish exactly what needed to be done: work.

He amped up his course load to 24 units and held three jobs, as a calculus tutor, a math tutor, and at the campus copy center.

Yepez also submitted extensive applications to nine Ivy League-caliber schools—Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Brown, Cornell, Stan-ford, Columbia, University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. For inspiration, he looked to his professors.

Yudell earned his PhD at Columbia after two bachelor’s degrees at Stanford. Marks was among the first in his family to go to college—with a BA from Chico State, a master’s from Sacramento State, and a PhD from UC Santa Cruz. Jones and Imhoff also went the CSU-to-Ivy League route, with Jones working his way up from a community college to Cal State Northridge to UCLA to Stanford for his PhD, and Imhoff carving an eventual path from Chico State to Stanford for his PhD.

“We connected that we came from blue-collar, working-class backgrounds,” Jones said, of Yepez. “He had aspirations. He was always shooting for some kind of higher achievement.”

And as individuals who carved out careers in academia, Yepez was the ideal student.

“There’s a feeling they are kindred spirits,” Jones said. “Every once in a while you get a student who is genuinely interested in knowledge and ideas. Their passion is not fueled by the job they are going to get. It’s interest in the subject. I know what that was like.”

This spring, rejection letters started trickling in, each one a crushing blow, and job offers were few.

Eventually, Yepez stopped checking for acceptance letters. He planned to return to the fields to pay off student loans.

One morning, he woke to repeated texts from Jones to check his email. There, Yepez saw three messages.

The first was from Harvard’s director of graduate studies, with an invitation to visit. An-other emailed asked if he was interested in taking a philosophy class in Spanish.

It wasn’t until the third email the realization sunk in.

“On behalf of the college, I’m happy to inform you that you have been accepted as a special student,” Yepez said, reciting the phrase from memory.

“I started jumping and screaming and doing all the stuff that was expected. It finally hit me,” Yepez said. “I can say I am flesh-and-bone proof dreams do come true.”

Harvard is paying for his relocation, tuition, health insurance, and a $30,000 stipend. Yepez started classes in August, and said the experience is everything he ever dreamed of. As is his nature, he has a larger-than-average course load and stays late on campus every night, indulging himself with access to a library dedicated entirely to philosophy.

“Now that it’s clear hard work pays off, it is very easy to stay long hours,” he said.

The work challenges him in ways the fields never did.

He aspires to become a professor, so he can drive that spark in students who may not recognize their passion or potential.

His former professors hope Yepez shows elite colleges and the public that Chico State students have the qualities to earn elite degrees.

“I will do my best to show that kids from these schools are just as good as privileged kids, and why Ivy Leagues should take more chances on CSU students,” Yepez said. “In every close relation in the possible Universe, if I wasn’t in Chico, I wouldn’t have ended up where I’m at.”

From left: Zanja Yudell, Christopher Marks, and Robert Jones are three of the professors Yepez attributes to his academic success.From left: Zanja Yudell, Christopher Marks, and Robert Jones are three of the professors Yepez attributes to his academic success. (Jason Halley/University Photographer)

Setting New Standards

When philosophy professor Robert Jones attended Stanford as a young man, he remembers thinking he was part of something bigger than himself—that he had the power to shift perceptions of who belonged among the academic elite.

If he failed, it would be a personal defeat, yes. But more importantly, he might affirm stereotypes faced by every student attempting to break through barriers that—for the working class—had kept a world-class education just out of reach.

It’s a familiar concept among his colleagues at Chico State. Some have personally experienced the divide between students from humble beginnings and those who trace their academic legacies through the generations. Others have witnessed outstanding students be denied admission to Ivy-caliber schools or struggle for acceptance once enrolled.

And yet, more and more Chico State students continue to not only succeed—they shine.

Such was the case of Michael Fitzpatrick, who served two tours in Iraq with the US Army before enrolling at Chico State and earning bachelor’s degrees in English and philosophy, and a master’s degree in literature. Today he is working toward his doctorate in philosophy at Stanford University.

Modest beginnings are also familiar to Erik Navarro, a first-generation undergraduate student who secured a full-ride scholarship to study biophysics at Princeton University.

And it is the story of Diego Yepez, who began his graduate studies this fall at Harvard. A former farm laborer, he is now an emerging scholar.

Chico State math professor Christopher Marks said these are just a sampling of those who are setting new standards among the highest levels of academia.

“They are interested in learning and not the superficial,” Marks said. “That’s the best part of my job, and Diego exemplifies that.”

Ashley Gebb (BA, Journalism, ’08) is the publications editor at Chico State.