A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Encouraging Success: With Life Turned Around, Alumnus Now Mentors Others

By Jason Jacks on November 8, 2012

It’s not a job title you see every day. But it’s one Juan Pacheco, BSN ’06, embraces proudly.

“I’m an encourager,” he declares, while pushing himself higher up in his chair to press the point that this is who he is and this is what he loves to do.

It may be an unusual sounding job. Few other career paths are as important because an encourager is there when times are tough, when life-changing decisions need to be made, when everything hangs in the balance.

Juan Pacheco

Pacheco is a counselor with Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), whose staff emboldens promising high school students to enroll and succeed in college. This position is not Pacheco’s first experience with the program. As a teenager, he was on the other side of the counseling table, in need of his own encourager to say, “You can do this. You can make it in college.”

Pacheco was born in El Salvador. To escape the violence of the civil war that was raging there at the time, Pacheco’s family embarked for the United States when he was eight. “My parents told us one day that we were packing and going somewhere new,” he remembers.

That somewhere new was a culturally diverse neighborhood in eastern Fairfax County, Virginia, called Culmore.

After he arrived, Pacheco picked up the language fast and showed promise in school. Soon, he was approached by a teacher who told him of EIP.

Initially, Pacheco was one of program’s rising stars, destined to get into Mason and likely on a scholarship. But with his parents each working two jobs to stay afloat, Pacheco soon found himself alone and caring for his two younger siblings.

Growing angrier at his predicament, he eventually found comfort, friendship, and understanding in a gang. But with this new family came violence, drugs, and run-ins with the police.

“I was in a downward spiral,” he says.

The penultimate moment, when Pacheco knew his life was spinning out of control, was when he witnessed a close friend die from a gunshot outside a movie theater in Fairfax County. As traumatic as it was, that event—along with serving time in jail for an unrelated felony—helped change the course of his life for the better.

“I like to call them ‘transforming moments,’” he says.

With a new focus but with his grades in tatters, Pacheco decided to reconnect with education. He earned his high school diploma and enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College, where he graduated with a 4.00 GPA. He then became involved with EIP again, which encouraged him to apply to Mason. He did, getting into the highly selective nursing program, no less.

Much as he did at community college, Pacheco hit the books hard at Mason, often taking more courses than he needed. When he graduated in 2006, he was already well on his way to additional degrees. He is now back at Mason as a student again, plugging away at dual degrees in biology and psychology. Someday he hopes to enroll in medical school and become a physician.

Around the same time Pacheco was starting college, he became involved with Barrios Unidos (United Neighborhoods) as a mentor for teens who face the same challenges and life choices he did at that age. As part of the organization, he’s traveled the country speaking on the pitfalls of a life of violence and encouraging at-risk teens to stay the course of education.

When he speaks with teens, he often cites his own rise from a violent lifestyle to that of an aspiring doctor. To make his point, he likes to appear in gang attire then slowly change into a Mason graduation gown then a doctor’s lab coat as his story unfolds.

As an encourager, Pacheco follows his own advice: Do what you love.

“When you get a calling,” he says, “there is no choice but to be the best you can be in that realm.”

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