Overcoming the odds: Student learned English by playing video games

The son of migrant workers, Juan Morales's path to UC Santa Cruz was anything but typical

Juan Morales
Student Juan Morales, whose family moved every six months to follow the crops, learned English by playing Pokemon. He is now studying computer science and video game design at UCSC. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

In a way, Juan Morales is attending UC Santa Cruz because of the video game Pokemon.

Morales, a dark-haired 18-year-old with an easy laugh, grew up in a world where sun, rain, and soil dictated where and how he lived. From his earliest memories, he and his family moved every six months to follow the crops, their lives divided between a migrant labor camp outside the agricultural town of Watsonville and a small trailer in the heart of the Central Valley.

Each move necessitated a new school and a different teacher for Morales and, because he didn't speak or read English, he felt isolated. He fell behind.

"I almost flunked kindergarten," he said.

But, clutching a GameBoy console in his hands, Morales found a constant in the video game Pokemon Yellow. In order to progress, he says, he had to learn to read English, so he spent hours puzzling out the words, watching what actions led to certain consequences.

It wasn't long, he says, before he was not only reading and speaking English but also learning about strategic decision-making — tools that got him through high school and into UCSC, where he is studying computer science and, of course, video game design. 

"Someday, I'd like to have my own gaming company," he said. "That would be amazing."

Morales, who lives at College 10, remembers the cramped, two-room apartment at the migrant labor camp, where his parents slept in one room and he and his brother slept in the other. He remembers the small preschool, the basketball court, the gang wannabes who hung outside the wood-frame bungalows.

But it was the summer his father — who never went to school past third grade — took him into the fields that Morales remembers most. Morales spent the summer picking raspberries.

"I said, 'Nope, this is really crazy work,'" said Morales. "I decided I was going to go to school and not end up like this."

He pushed himself in his classes, watching kids he knew drop out as they grew older. His parents pushed him, too.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without them," he said.

While other guys were drawn to gang life, Morales hung out with kids like himself.

One year, they joined a program called Guitars not Guns. After eight weeks of music lessons, he said, they were awarded free guitars and spent all their time trying to form their own band, while others got in trouble or went to jail.

"I guess everyone makes their decisions," he said — just as in the video game he used to play. "Our little-kid thoughts kept us sane. We were going to go to school and get a better life."

At UCSC, Morales has joined MEChA, and is part of Orale, a program designed to introduce Latino and Latina students to the UC college experience. He also connected with a group headed by graduate student Lisa Banks that is developing an immersive and interactive art video game titled SLUG!OUYA. He received a renewable $3,000 Alumni Association Scholarship.

He chuckles when asked if he had a hard time adjusting to college life.

"I saw a bunch of people moving in and being all worked up about leaving home," Morales said. "I've done it every year, twice a year, for my whole life. I just unpacked."