Early one Saturday morning last year, Christian Vazquez hopped on his bicycle and pedaled from his Highland Park home to the campus of Cal State, Los Angeles, one of many designated testing facilities for the Graduate Record Examination. The GRE, as it’s better known, is a test required for admission to what may amount to thousands of Master’s- and doctoral-degree programs—from astronomy and English to journalism and zoology—in the United States.
Vazquez, 24, who studied for the GRE over the course of about four months using a free study guide, was already an academic success story. Raised in east L.A. by a mother who worked full-time as a bank-loan processor, he was the first person in his family to attend college. During his undergraduate education, Vazquez lived at home and commuted via bike or bus to California State University Northridge four days a week, a two-hour trip each way, and paid his way through school by working as a cashier at a Kohl’s department store. Vazquez graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in English, earning mostly As. When he went job hunting, he had one thing in mind: “I knew I wanted a job where I made an impact on other people’s lives,” he says. He ended up with two part-time positions, as a teaching assistant at an elementary school helping mainly at-risk Latino children and as a tutor at Pasadena City College, where he also enrolled in literature and writing classes for fun. On his commutes to work, Vazquez dreamed of a grander future: becoming a college English professor.