Help Along the Way

It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to tell Alejandro Larios Mora’s journey in a concise manner.

Each and every day of his 36 years is vital in narrating where Larios Mora has been and where he is going. His early, tough upbringing in Anaheim, California where he was a self-described “troublemaker” was fundamental to Larios Mora jumpstarting his education in community college.

The four years he spent as an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona led to his acceptance first as a veterinary student and then as a PhD/Pathology resident in Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. 

You can’t tell one story without it impacting on another. 

And every step of the way, Larios Mora was assisted – first by family and then by people he came to know from all walks of life.

Far From a Dream

Alejandro Larios Mora is a dreamer. And he’s a DREAMer. He’s one of roughly 1.8 million immigrants in the United States who were brought to the United States as children.

In Larios Mora’s case, he was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. When he was a child, his family moved to Hawaii where his father did construction work on a new telescope being built on the Big Island. About a year later the family moved to southern California.

“I wasn’t a good student back then,” Larios Mora remembers. “I didn’t pass kindergarten – I mean, who doesn’t pass kindergarten?”

He was a troublemaker. “I loved being a troublemaker.” He was so bad in school that in the fifth grade the only way he could attend class was if his mother came to school with him.

“It was embarrassing to show up in school with your mom,” he said. 

Even that didn’t help.

“I got caught cheating in the fifth grade and my mom was in the class,” Larios Mora said. “The teacher had enough by then.”

It was a downward spiral from then on. Larios Mora says he didn’t care if he graduated high school or not. And it looked like he wouldn’t. 

“It wasn’t until two or three days before graduation that I found out that I was graduating.”

Even though he was the first in his immediate family to receive his high school diploma, Larios Mora says he had no interest in education.

While he was in high school, he learned that he was undocumented.

Although his father had received his permanent residency, Larios Mora was still seeking his. When Larios Mora entered the ninth grade, his father petitioned for permanent residency on his behalf. Four years later U.S. Immigration Services still hadn’t gotten to the application.  

“All this time I thought I had been born in the U.S.,” he said. “That was tough. I was undocumented. I couldn’t get a driver’s license. I couldn’t work.”

Starting From Scratch

Community college was Larios Mora’s only option. And even that wasn’t a great option.

There was the cost. At $200 a credit hour, it was out of his price range. Then there was his educational background.

“I scored so low in my placement test that it was like I didn’t have any knowledge at all,” he said. “In my first math class I was literally adding numbers. I had to learn how to write sentences in English and had to take reading classes. I started from the bottom. It took me four years in community college to get to a high school level.

“I almost gave up. I was so far behind everyone else. I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My family couldn’t relate and I was paying so much money for the classes.”

That’s when the village started developing for Alejandro Larios Mora.

At Fullerton Community College, he had a couple of mentors that assisted him, giving him the confidence he needed to succeed. One was Karyn Nguyen, a counselor at the school. As a refugee from Vietnam, Nguyen shared a common bond with the young DREAMer.

“Both of us believed that education is the key to success and that America is the land of opportunities,” she said. “And most important, Alex never lost hope.”

Nguyen served not only as a mentor but a role model, something Larios Mora hadn’t experienced before.

“I had no role models as a kid. I grew up in a really bad neighborhood and aspiring to be something more than everybody around you was difficult,” he said. “But after community college I had the confidence I could do this.”

Stepping Around a Roadblock

Larios Mora had given up on his dream of becoming a permanent resident. As he was preparing to graduate from community college, he was looking toward a four-year school.

But an obstacle continued to stand in his way. He was still going through the immigration process but he had gotten too old for the program he was attempting to sign up for. So, at age 21 his application went to the back of the line again.

With that came other difficulties. He still couldn’t legally work. He couldn’t drive. And more importantly for Larios Mora, he wasn’t eligible for federal or state financial aid.

Somehow, he wound up at California Polytechnic State University.

“That’s where I found out I was a good student – that I could go far beyond college,” he said.

It was also where he found a love for veterinary medicine and pathology in particular.

“I wanted to help both animals and people, and I loved science, but vet school was another four years.”

Finding a Home in Ames

There were two reasons why Larios Mora decided to attend Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Knowing he wanted to be a veterinary pathologist, he researched the nation’s top programs and Iowa State came to the forefront.

“I didn’t even know Iowa State had a vet school,” he said. “I applied. I was accepted.”

More importantly, he got a scholarship.

“I came to Iowa State because of the scholarship and then my dad got a one-time loan that helped with some of my costs.”

He was able to squeak by his first year financially. But then the college determined he couldn’t receive the scholarship because of his immigration status. He had no money for tuition. No money for living expenses.

The Ames and Iowa State communities started stepping up. 

“There are a lot of good faculty members here that were instrumental in my staying in school,” Larios Mora said. “Jesse Goff (professor of biomedical sciences) not only let me stay at his house for a while, he let me eat his food. People like him were very helpful.”

An anonymous individual paid for a semester of his tuition. He was part of the school’s Summer Scholar Program. The Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames supported him, allowing him to live in a church-owned house in exchange for doing chores for the church. It indeed took a village.

Bruce and Barbara Munson are part of the church’s student ministry. They have known Larios Mora for seven years and became impressed with his personality and willingness to engage in conversation, talking about big questions.

“Over the years as we have heard more about his story, we continue to be amazed how he has overcome obstacles and hardships that would derail most of us,” the Munsons wrote. “He is an example that having a mentor along the way at the right time is so, so  important.”

Goff also served as one of those mentors, providing Larios Mora with academic support as well as food from time to time. After a particularly bad  midterm exam result on a first-year nutrition class, Larios Mora went to Goff.

“He told me a bit about his past and how he had worked hard to get through undergraduate school,” Goff recalled. “I gave him several books off my shelf and gave him some chapters to read. He would check in with me periodically to see what else he could read.

“He applied himself diligently to catch up to his peers and managed to pass my nutrition class.”

Even with a village to help him, it was touch and go throughout his four years as a DVM student.

“I was accepted with open arms here,” Larios Mora said. “With the help of so many people at least I was able to stay in school. But each semester I wondered how I could come up with the necessary funds.”

In his third year, Larios Mora felt he had reached the end of the line. He was walking out of the vet school building heading to the bus stop and a one-way ticket back to California when he ran across then-Dean Lisa K. Nolan.

“Dr. Nolan asked how it was going and I told her I was going back home,” he remembers. “She told me not to leave, that she would look into it, and somehow she made it happen, allowing me to continue.

“If I hadn’t run into her that day I wouldn’t be here now. Dr. Nolan and her efforts are a big part of why I am a veterinarian.”

A Permanent Resident

Larios Mora stayed and completed his DVM. Still an undocumented resident, he couldn’t work. With the help of Nolan and Dr. Joseph Haynes, a PhD/pathology residency position was funded for Larios Mora to continue his education.

In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was created for individuals like Larios Mora who entered the country as minors. If the program would have been established a year later, Larios Mora wouldn’t have been eligible.

Finally, in August 2017, Larios Mora received his permanent residency. He got a driver’s license. He can work legally now and he is a postdoc with the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. He is a board-certified pathologist, passing the board exam on his first try.

It’s a happy ending to a difficult beginning.

“Alex is one of the most determined, hopeful and respectful young men I have ever met,” Karen Nguyen, his community college counselor says. “Even with all the odds against him, he remained hopeful and focused.”

“There was something about his ability to overcome adversity that would have sunk most people, that I admired,” Jesse Goff said. “If this is not the American success story as a result of hard work and determination against the odds, I don’t know what is.”

Former Dean Nolan says, “He is truly an inspiration to me and will be to others who meet him. He is a guy, who by virtue of what he has overcome and accomplished, can do much good in the world.”

And this from his “American parents,” Bruce and Barbara Munson, “He is truly a person who has prevailed against the odds. He has worked tirelessly against circumstances that would shut most people down.”

Larios Mora also realizes what he has accomplished.

“I had a difficult upbringing. There are so many obstacles for myself and others growing up in those neighborhoods – everything from the poor education you get to the lack of role models – there are a lot of things that prevent you from leaving the neighborhood.

“Now people in my old neighborhood look up to me. This sounds surreal to me but my nieces and nephews look up to me. A lot of the credit goes to all the people that have helped me along the way so I could complete this program.”

Dreaming for the Next Generation

Alejandro Larios Mora is looking to give back. Last fall semester, he was walking down the College of Veterinary Medicine’s hallway when he noticed a young, Latino high school student standing by herself after taking a tour of the college’s facilities.

He didn’t have to stop. He could have walked right by and no one would have blamed him.

Instead he stopped and engaged the young lady until her father finished talking with a college staff member.

He spoke to her about her desire to be a veterinarian. He gave his phone number and asked her to call if she had any questions.

He was paying back what Nguyen, Goff, the Munsons, Haynes, Nolan and so many others in his life had done for him.

“Everyone needs a mentor, someone to help encourage them to succeed,” Larios Mora said. “Whatever it takes to motivate people to change their lives, I think it starts with opportunities.

“You can do something different with your life.”

April 2018