Raising the stakes

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After six months at UVU and a 40-hour certification course, 19-year-old Cesar Ahumada received the national Wildland Firefighter certification by the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy on Feb. 20.

While he isn’t the first or the youngest student ever to receive the certification, Ahumada is among a young, ambitious crop of students that has completed the tough, entry-level training course, which he admitted tested him at times.

“When I first started and our instructors told and showed us what it really takes to be a firefighter, there were times when I didn’t know if I could do this, but there’s always those thoughts,” Ahumada said.

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 8.31.21 PMBy working full-time to support himself during his junior and senior years at Juan Diego High School, Ahumada graduated last May and began at UVU in the fall. He has been supporting himself since he was 16.

Ahumada was born in Mexico, but moved to Utah at age 8 after his mother struggled to afford care for him, his two brothers and two sisters. She made the decision to send him to live with his grandparents. He said he grew up in poverty, but remembers seeing other people struggle was more difficult for him than having to live without.

“The main thing my grandparents taught me was to put someone before myself, to provide for someone else if they need it. Something will come for me later on,” Ahumada said. “I really look up to my grandpa especially because he always worked out in the [fruit] fields, looking for a way to provide for my education and to have food everyday. I remember him leaving until 4 or 5 in the morning and not coming back until late. He was out all day.”

Now majoring in Emergency Services at the Utah Fire and Rescue Academy, Ahumada wants to go to paramedic school, a goal that his friend Augustino Diaz thinks is very much achievable because of Ahumada’s commitment to his community.

“The guy has just blossomed,” Diaz said. “When I first met [Ahumada], he was this kid that had a rough story to him, but he was kind of like me. He is the perfect example of someone who has gone beyond his community and is coming back to it to assist it. That’s an ideal I think we should all strive for.”

Ahumada said he first encountered Diaz, who works in Prospective Student Services at UVU, about two years ago. The two now rely on each other for both support and encouragement.

“When [Diaz] first came to my high school to speak about college, it was my junior year. Ever since that day I’ve been in contact with him, he’s been a big help. I look up to him a lot,” Ahumada said. “Whenever I need something, he takes the time to talk to me.“

Diaz said he enjoys working with underrepresented groups of high school students in an effort to close the gap in the number of graduating minority students.

“That’s just my philosophy when it comes to social justice in education: Everybody has an equal playing field when it comes to education itself,” Diaz said. “It’s a totally biased, one-sided system that often doesn’t look to underrepresented groups to perform the best they can and often provides obstacles versus opportunities in some cases. I just want to be a part of taking that down.”

While Diaz doesn’t like to take credit for anything they accomplish, he said high school students that do end up coming to UVU often teach him, rather than the other way around.

“I think they influence me more than I influence them,” Diaz said. “Because their stories are the reason why I keep going. I mean, yeah I help them and guide them, but each and every one have their own inner strengths and potential that comes out as soon as they’re engaged in the institution. They can create their own pathways, incentives, their own initiatives. Once they find that out, they kind of explode on their own.”