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    Jose's story

    This quick video gives you insight about what Jose has overcome and how hard he will fight for your case!

    Student faced his share of obstacles

    High school dropout excels at law school

    By Tanya Sierra  

    April 19, 2008

    SAN DIEGO – The journey to law school for Jose Orozco began at a Jack in the Box when he was plotting his promotion from cashier to shift leader.

    If he worked hard, he could make the move in six months, he was told. And why not? His job kept him off the streets of Logan Heights, where he was teetering on being “jumped into” one of the gangs that controlled the neighborhood.

    The fast-food joint is also where he met Kevin LaChapelle, a former police officer who frequented the restaurant. LaChapelle, a youth mentor, saw in Orozco what he didn't and helped him turn his life around.

    “I had that strong, strong feeling that this guy wanted to change,” LaChapelle said. “When I worked with gang members, we would have to beg them to change. Jose was different.”

    Today the high school dropout is incoming president of the Student Bar Association at California Western School of Law in San Diego and is planning a career as an employment lawyer.

    Law school wasn't always an option for Orozco. He had already been beaten into a tagging crew. Joining a gang was the natural next step – if he could only make time.

    Fortunately for Orozco, 27, the fast-food restaurant consumed his time, and his buddies began to disappear. “Every time I went back to hang out, they were locked up,” he said. That shift-leader job was looking better all the time.

    Orozco was orphaned early in life. He was 8 when his mother died of skin cancer. Five years later, his father died of prostate cancer. For a year he bounced around between his grandmother's home in Nayarit, Mexico, and his stepsister's place in National City. Eventually, Orozco settled with his aunt in Sherman Heights, where he grew up. “Sometimes I felt out of place; sometimes I felt like a grown man,” Orozco said. To cope, he embraced his independence, boasting to junior high school friends about his freedom. “I don't have to ask permission from my parents,” he would tell them. Of course, “girls liked it,” he said.

    It wasn't long before Orozco was missing school, picking fights and sneaking out at night. By ninth grade, he was mostly showing up only for lunch and physical education at San Diego High School.

    “I was very worried about the kinds of friends he had,” said Orozco's aunt, Marina Fregoso. “He would ditch school a lot, and they would call every day from school.” She figured he was acting out because his parents died, so she tried to encourage him. “I would tell him, 'You have us,' ” Fregoso said. “ 'If you need something, tell us. We'll give you all the support you need. Maybe not money, but our support.' ”

    When Orozco began looking forward to getting a driver's license and future work, his uncle informed him of another setback. “Well, you can't – you're here illegally,” Orozco recalled his uncle saying. He eventually dropped out of high school and picked up the job at Jack in the Box with phony documents. On the weekends, he mowed lawns.

    It was at Jack in the Box where Orozco met LaChapelle.

    “He was the one who gave me that spark,” Orozco said. “Sometimes I'm sitting there in class and I'm like, 'I'm in law school!' ” LaChapelle was instrumental in helping Orozco settle his citizenship status.

    His father was born in the United States, but his mother wasn't. Orozco was born in Tijuana. Since his parents were deceased, he had to prove his father had been living in the United States for a certain period of time in order to gain citizenship.

    It was a seven-year process that often left Orozco demoralized as he tried to turn his life around.

    Ultimately, he secured a Social Security card based on his father's birth certificate and later obtained a legal identification card from another state, where a birth certificate wasn't required.

    He returned to school for GED classes, went to San Diego City College and transferred to San Diego State University, where he graduated in 2006 with a double major in philosophy and political science.

    Two years ago, he became a citizen.

    “I was so excited I went straight to the DMV to get a driver's license,” Orozco said. Now in his second year of law school, Orozco – who last year was president of the La Raza Law Student Association – is making an impression at his downtown campus, said Laura Padilla, associate dean of California Western School of Law. “Most of our students graduate from high school, go straight to college, then law school,” Padilla said. “We don't have many high school dropouts.”

    That nontraditional experience is exactly what Padilla said will make Orozco an understanding lawyer.

    When he graduates in June 2009, Orozco intends to practice employment law as a way to help workers who are like he once was: without a voice.

    Tanya Sierra: (619) 498-6631;


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