Professor helps students with low incomes purchase college textbooks

FRESNO, Calif. — As a boy, Albert Valencia dodged bullets and knives in the rough neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles. So what’s a few sharks in the San Francisco Bay?

Now Valencia, the amiable 60-year-old is channeling an adventurous spirit into a campaign to furnish textbooks to needy students at California State University, Fresno.

As director of the university’s Mentoring Institute, Valencia works to smooth the path for students often overwhelmed by classes, budgets and more. Book prices can be another shock.

“They tell me, ‘I factored in everything except the books,'” he said.

Many times, Valencia said, students have told him that book money has instead been spent on an emergency flat tire repair or a prescription for a sick child. He and other professors said students will share textbooks — or even go without — to stretch budgets.

Valencia said the new fund is unique because, unlike more general forms of financial aid, it will only buy textbooks.

Olga Padilla, a junior from Parlier, Calif., who works at the institute, said her $600 book bill last semester was “twice my rent.”

“If somebody could help you with a book, that’d be great,” she said. “Even if it’s just one book.”

Valencia — also experienced in martial arts, triathlons, hiking and surfing — decided to use himself as bait in a fundraising campaign. He billed his entry in June’s “Sharkfest” as “Swimming for Books,” then tried to hook colleagues into donating.

Valencia has completed the swim twice before in the past five years, but promoting it more this time prompted some questions.

His father, Rito, asked: “Son, have you been drinking?”

“No, dad.”

“Then maybe you should consider having a drink and think about this.”

Valencia finished this year in less than an hour, 356th out of about 400 male swimmers in wet suits.

In truth, “Sharkfest” only sounds menacing. Valencia — whose swim has netted about $1,200 for the book fund — said he’s never seen one of the toothy beasts on the course.

He may have ducked greater danger in Watts and Compton. Valencia grew up in neighborhoods where racial taunts, violence and poverty were far more real than college dreams.

Drive-bys and gunshots were common. High school friends pointed guns at people they disliked; Valencia tried to play it cool while his heart raced.

Valencia’s maternal grandparents were immigrants and refugees from the Mexican revolutions who settled in poor neighborhoods. Adults in the family often struggled to find and keep jobs, even the low-paying ones.

At night, the family often gathered to watch an old black-and-white television.

One night, Valencia said, the movie was a musical about college students in letterman sweaters and loafers, with big hairdos and skirts. Then about 8, he was fascinated.

In one dining hall scene, a student saw the busboy clearing dishes and asked: “Tommy, what are you doing?”

“I’m working my way through college,” he replied, spinning away into a dance.

It was an inspiration, Valencia said. He soon had a plan — to work and put part of his paycheck toward college.

After finishing high school, Valencia juggled jobs, night classes and fatherhood for a half-dozen years before earning his first college degree: an associate of arts in sociology from Los Angeles City College.

Over time, he racked up three more — the last, a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He has worked as a marriage, family and child counselor; an instructor at community colleges; a school board member; and clinical director of a mental health agency.

Valencia, married and the father of four, has been at Fresno State since 1996. He’s an associate professor in the department of counseling, special education and rehabilitation and director of the Mentoring Institute.

Today, Valencia said, the average text costs about $70 to $80. Fresno State’s bookstore sells everything from $5 paperbacks to $150 nursing and engineering texts; officials put the average around $50.

Joe Parks, a professor of education, is chairman of the committee developing guidelines for the “Swimming for Books” fund.

Officials hope to buy books, rent them to needy students for $1 a week, then recycle them to more students in future semesters.

Parks said he and Valencia, who grew up in different states but similar neighborhoods, often swap stories about their experiences.

Both say they know the college struggle.

Said Valencia: “I can relate to the hardship.”