Not long ago, Lulu Sanchez was an anxious teenager wandering the halls of Franklin High School, an undocumented immigrant living in a tough neighborhood in a tough town, wondering if her past might derail her future.
It was only 12 years ago, to be exact.
Now she’s back.
She’s back, this time as a college professor. With a master’s degree. With a house, and a family of her own. And a story that reminds Franklin students every day of their limitless potential.
“I was once in your seat,” she tells them, again and again.
And it’s quite literally true.
Delta College Professor Lourdes “Lulu” Sanchez now teaches a business class at Franklin, her alma mater. It’s what’s known as a dual enrollment class, an opportunity for high school students to earn college credits, on their own campus, for free.
This is her first semester as a college professor.
Sometimes it seems little has changed since she graduated from Franklin. Mrs. James, her old English teacher, still teaches a few doors down the hall. Her track coach is still here, too.
Little has changed. But everything has changed.
It’s 8:30 a.m., and Lulu’s classroom slowly fills with students still rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
She’s got some sobering stats to share in her personal finance lecture today. That $5 coffee you got from Starbucks on your way in? That’s $1,200 out of your pocket each year if you buy one every school day. Those loans you’re thinking of taking out to pay for college? It’ll cost you triple to pay them off, factoring in interest.
But then she sprinkles in some hope. She’s good at that.
“I worked four or five different jobs when I was in college, and I was able to graduate with zero in debt,” she tells them, walking the aisles and making direct eye contact. “It’s hard while you’re going through it, but you can do it.”
Lulu was 1 year and 7 months old when her family immigrated from Mexico in search of a better life. Her father hadn’t advanced past the sixth or seventh grade, and sometimes he asked why she studied so much.
But when he saw the fruits of her labors, he understood.
In high school, she ran cross country and track, and joined the International Baccalaureate program as she prepared to be one of the first members of her family to attend college. But for many years she kept her undocumented status quiet, telling only her two best friends. In those days, support systems for undocumented students were more limited. One had to be careful.
“You didn’t share that information with anyone,” she said. “Your parents would say, ‘This is our family secret.’”
Her family didn’t have much money and Delta College was her best hope at higher education. At Delta she again ran track and cross country, and became close with Coach Lauryn Seales who connected her to resources for undocumented students. At the same time, she enrolled in business classes taught by Professor Martha Villarreal, the only Latina professor she ever had, motivating her to reach for new goals and foreshadowing what was possible in her own career.
These were her lifelines.
Lulu Sanchez as a Delta College Mustang
Lulu thrived at Delta, transferred to San Jose State to earn her bachelor’s degree, and then in a twist of fate returned to Delta as an employee, where she eventually helped coordinate the College’s dual enrollment programs.
As a young mother working full time, she took yet another leap of faith during COVID-19 and earned her MBA degree, securing a faculty position at Delta College the very same month that she graduated.
And setting the stage for her return to Franklin High School.
After more than six years advocating for dual enrollment, Lulu wanted to teach at least one of her first college courses in a high school. As luck would have it, she was assigned a class at Franklin, not far from the house she and her young family recently purchased.
Having come full circle round, she was now ready to serve the same community that raised her, a community that needs her help.
On this Wednesday morning in November, those same sleepy-eyed students are slowly waking up, absorbing their professor’s pearls of wisdom on finance (even the hard truth of how expensive their daily coffee is). Then they separate into small groups to work on projects. Lulu floats around the room offering assistance.
One of her students admits that the first time she came to class, she didn’t realize Lulu was a professor. Sometimes she feels more like a sister or a cousin.
“I look at her as a mentor,” 17-year-old Yocelyn says.
There’s just something about her that makes them feel comfortable.
“Maybe she has more of an understanding of how we think and how we see things,” says 15-year-old Aryanna. “So we’re not struggling so much.”
Sometimes, when she’s not talking about balancing budgets or avoiding debt, Lulu reminds them of her own personal journey, her Spanish accent making her words all the more authentic and powerful.
She tells her story. And she’ll tell it, again and again, until her students see a little of Professor Lourdes “Lulu” Sanchez in themselves, until they really believe it:
“I was once in your seat.”