*I interviewed Karen Camacho in 2015. She grew up in East Palo Alto and was set to graduate from Stanford University. This profile was published in the EPA Today newspaper.*
“That’s such a hard question!” Karen Camacho gushed after being asked the dreaded question: What do you hope to accomplish after college?
However, her shyness and uncertainty was quickly replaced with confidence and passion when she began talking about topics that are important to her—topics such as immigration, education, and self-motivation. Oh, and don’t even get her started on the housing situation in the Bay Area, she warned with a laugh.
Camacho is currently finishing up her senior year at Stanford University. Although she hasn’t quite figured out what she’ll do next, looking at her past accomplishments, it would be easy for some to say: she’s going places.
Camacho is a fellow East Palo Alto resident. She was born in Mexico and lived there for six years before moving to the United States. During those early years, she didn’t understand why her dad was always working. “I was pretty young, but I still felt resentment towards my dad because he wasn’t there often,” she confessed.
Many years later, she found her answer in one of her college classes. “So, turns out that during that time, part of the [immigration] policy was that you could obtain your citizenship if you worked in the fields. Because of that, we were all able to move here,” she said. “When we first moved to East Palo Alto, we lived in my aunt’s house,” she remembers. They were a family of five, living in one room.
As she continued to learn more about the history of immigration in the United States, she became more and more interested in the issue. She even got involved with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLESPA) which focuses on immigration, housing, and economic advancement issues.
“I’ve been helping interpret,” she explained before adding that one of her options could be to continue working with them after she graduates.
So, who or what has motivated her all these years? The soon-to-be graduate credits her family for supporting her and her older sister for being a great role model. “I’m going to brag about my sister because she’s my role model.
I think that’s the person that I’ve looked up to my whole life. She’s the person that has done it and that’s why I have the will to think ‘yes, I can do it.’”
Camacho proudly explained that her older sister was a computer science major and is now a software test engineer. “I didn’t even know what computer science was until my freshman year of college. This whole time my whole family was like ‘cual es tu major otra vez?’ we had no clue,” she laughed.
What is your major again? This question is common for many families, like Camacho’s, who don’t have prior experience with college. Yet, despite not knowing much about the education system in the United States, Camacho’s parents made sure to encourage her anyway—which she believes played a crucial role in getting her to Stanford.
“Sometimes, even though I had the support of my family, they didn’t know. They just didn’t have the information. So, I think another huge contributing part was myself— having the courage to ask for help.
I made a lot of friends that were teachers,” she explained. It wasn’t enough to have her family’s support, she had to find that drive within herself and she encourages others to do the same. “Knowing that I didn’t have the same resources as everyone else, I had to put that extra effort to ask for help,” she emphasized.
As Camacho began her college career at Stanford, this idea of asking for help and helping others remained on her mind. “I applied as a Service Scholar [with Branner Hall, a school dormitory] my sophomore year,” she explained. Residents of Branner Hall focus on public service.
Camacho effortlessly listed the six pathways to public service: community engagement, activism, philanthropy, politics and policy, social entrepreneurship, and direct service. Not only do students commit to incorporating service into their lives, but they also discuss how service affects communities.
One example that Camacho gave was whether or not it’s ethical for startup companies to introduce new programs into lower-income communities, such as East Palo Alto, without taking the time to research whether these communities already have existing programs that could be helped instead.
So, what does Karen hope to accomplish in the future? She expressed interest in going to law school and possibly becoming a lawyer. She hopes to continue helping others by working at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.
“I know that service will be a huge component of my life,” she said before shyly adding —almost whispering—that perhaps she would like to become the mayor of East Palo Alto one day. “My community, my family, those who have had the same struggles are always on my mind.”