Above, Joseph Gonzalez is joined at an Explorer awards ceremony by, from left, Deputy School Police Chief Tim Anderson, Silvia Martinez, policy director for School Board Member Scott Schmerelson, District Operations Director Darneika Watson-Davis and School Police Chief Steve Zipperman. 

Valley Alternative Magnet Principal Robert Clarke congratulates Joseph Gonzalez on his acceptance to UCLA.

This is part of a series of stories about outstanding graduates of the Class of 2018.  

Joseph Gonzalez was in sixth grade when he began attending Valley Alternative Magnet, a K-12 span school in Lake Balboa. He was a good student who listened to his parents as they talked about the importance of working hard, going to college, fighting for his dreams. With his parents and two older sisters, he lived a humble but happy life in a small apartment in Van Nuys.

When he was a sophomore in high school, Joseph’s parents both lost their jobs and the family lost their home. An advocacy organization found them housing in a series of motels – some of them an hour’s bus ride from Valley Alt – but it was a difficult and transitory existence that sapped the teen’s physical, mental and emotional endurance.

Then, by happenstance, one of his teachers mentioned that Los Angeles School Police was forming an Explorer Post near the Valley Alt campus. Although he joined because the program offered college credits, Joseph was soon immersed in activities like calisthenics, community service and leadership training.

And Joseph also found himself guided and inspired by School Police officers who taught him to believe in himself, push his own limits and set his sights on success. Thanks to the values instilled by his family and reinforced by the Explorers, Joseph will be graduating next month near the top of his class and heading to UCLA on a full-tuition scholarship.

“My Explorer post was a beacon in the darkness that inspired me to succeed even if I was homeless,” he said. “I always had their support.”

The Explorer program was launched 15 years ago for teens interested in law-enforcement careers, but its activities support any career path. Students learn about teamwork, commitment, responsibility and giving back to the community. Explorers also participate in a grueling seven-week summer academy that Joseph compared to military boot camp. The academy was so physically and emotionally draining, in fact, that Joseph was preparing to quit. He changed his mind when School Police Chief Steve Zipperman stopped by and talked to the kids about finding the inner strength to never give up.

“From that day, I was determined to become an Explorer no matter what I went through,” Joseph said.

With that renewed commitment, Joseph juggled post meetings, community service projects and a heavy academic load that included Advanced Placement courses. He enrolled in after-school classes like statistics and sociology at nearby Pierce College, earning associate’s degree despite their college-level rigor. He served on a student advisory committee organized by School Board Member Scott Schmerelson. And he remained a source of pride and inspiration for his family as they struggled to get back on their feet.

“Joseph leads by example, and is an advocate for his classmates,” said Valley Alt Principal Robert Clarke. “He is an example for all of our students about overcoming obstacles rather than letting obstacles overcome you.”

Joseph is interested in cinema and filmmaking but hasn’t yet declared a major at UCLA. Whatever he decides, he knows he’ll be able to tap his inner resources to reach his goals.

“If you want to reach your dreams, all you have to do is go beyond the pain, sweat and tears until they’re within your grasp,” Joseph said. “Once you’ve done this, you will be able to say that you went through all the hardships, but still came out on top.”