From Little Village to Stanford

Guillermo Camarillo, ’20, grew up in the Chicago neighborhood known as Lit

Guillermo Camarillo, ’20, grew up in the Chicago neighborhood known as Little Village. (Image credit: Courtesy Guillermo Camarillo)

Among Stanford’s 2020 graduates is Guillermo Camarillo, whose unlikely path to the Farm was paved in part by a "village" of people who supported his pursuit of higher education.

In 2016, shortly after learning of his acceptance to Stanford, Guillermo Camarillo, ’20, made international headlines when an he wrote to his dentist went viral.

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It may have seemed like the deck was stacked against Camarillo. But top academic achievements, an impressive resume and a commitment to higher learning and public service are among the qualities that earned him a spot in the Class of 2020.

In the letter, he recounts a discussion with his doctor about his need for braces. He also shares how the doctor dismissed his acceptance to Stanford and questioned his academic competence because of where he comes from.

"I had never had anyone question my merit the way my dentist did," Camarillo said, adding that he was unable to pay for the braces.

Such skepticism was just one of numerous barriers Camarillo overcame to get to, and through, Stanford. He was born and raised in a low-income, immigrant community in Chicago where few people attend college. He also spent years helping his family through a devastating run-in with federal authorities that nearly derailed his college ambitions.

It may have seemed like the deck was stacked against Camarillo. But top academic achievements, an impressive resume and a commitment to higher learning and public service were among the qualities that earned him a spot in the Class of 2020. Camarillo, now a Stanford graduate with a bachelor’s degree in management science and engineering, insists he didn’t do it alone.

"I’ve been very fortunate," he said. "It’s taken a village, and I’m grateful for everyone that’s helped me."

Vida en La Villita

Camarillo spent most of his childhood in a neighborhood known as Little Village, or La Villita, on the west side of Chicago. It’s a community of mostly Mexican immigrants - like Camarillo’s parents - where Spanish is the predominant spoken language.

"It’s a very loving community," Camarillo said.

Camarillo took charge of his educational goals at an early age, opting out of a nearby high school for a better one on the other side of the city, despite the long commute. With support from teachers, counselors and family, he excelled academically. When it came time to apply to colleges, he never expected he’d make it to Stanford. But Camarillo decided to go out on a limb and told himself, "I’m going to shoot my shot and we’ll see how this goes."

But in the meantime, his home life began to unravel. One day while leaving their house, Camarillo’s parents were confronted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

"Five black SUVs pulled up and they took my dad and put him in proceedings to be deported," he said. "That turned my world upside down."

Camarillo considered dropping out of high school to help his family work through the legalities of this father’s detainment, but was convinced to stay and pursue college. A few weeks later, he was accepted to Stanford.

Due to his father’s detainment and his family’s financial constraints, Camarillo arrived on the Farm by himself. He found support early through the Leland Scholars Program (LSP) and the First Gen/Low Income (FLI) community.

"Knowing that I had a family there, my LSP family, made [transitioning to college] better," he said, adding that the resources, services and advocacy such communities offer to underrepresented students are crucial to their college experiences.

Despite the challenges back home, Camarillo thrived at Stanford, becoming an active member of the campus community. He’s been involved with El Centro Chicano y Latino and the Haas Center for Public Service. He also worked as a resident assistant at Crothers Hall. Throughout his college career, he supported his family as they worked through legal challenges. Camarillo’s father staved off deportation and, last September, was awarded residency in the United States.

A supportive network

Camarillo said that, despite the difficulties that come with being a student from a low-income and first-gen background, he’s lucky to have had the support of many people around him. He stressed the importance of connecting with mentors. Camarillo is particularly thankful for one Stanford professor who contacted him after reading his letter to his dentist.

"I had a Stanford professor reach out, welcome me to campus and offer to pay for my braces," Camarillo said. "He ended up being an amazing mentor of mine."

That professor was acclaimed neuroscientist Ben Barres who, after paying for the braces, became a friend and advisor to Camarillo. Over the next couple of months, the two would have regular check-ins to talk about college. Barres even paid for Camarillo’s parents to visit Stanford.

"He was very much someone that made me feel like a part of campus, understood a lot of what I was going through and was always present," Camarillo said, adding that he’d never met anyone with such a big heart. "He was too good for this world."

Barres passed away in December 2017 from pancreatic cancer.

Now a Stanford graduate, Camarillo has returned home to Chicago, where he will soon begin a job with an industrial supply company. He also has a new dentist. Reflecting on his time at Stanford, he said he couldn’t envision himself anywhere else and encourages students to strive for excellence, regardless of their background.

"It doesn’t matter where you come from. Work hard and make something of yourself," he said. "Whether that is going to college, going to trade school, starting your own business - do what makes you happy. Do not let others tell you what you can and can’t be."


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