A Mile in His Shoes: Salinas on his journey to live the American Dream

Lorenzo Salinas refused to be another statistic. That is the motif of this story. It is an odyssey that embodies hard work, fervor, determination — that pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality.

But this story does not begin with Salinas, a senior social work major at Lamar University. It begins with a dream — one that is uniquely American.

This is a story that begins hundreds of miles from Beaumont, Texas, in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, where Salinas' grandparents left everything they knew — the faces that greeted them every day and all that was familiar — the laundry, the front door, the shining Mexico sun — to achieve a dream.

That day in the late ‘70s, they decided to walk. And walk. And walk. No shoes. No money. No education.

Eventually, they settled in Houston, hands blistered from picking fruit.

Unsatisfied with stories, with how things have gone with others, Salinas’ grandparents envisioned a new life for their unborn grandson.

On Aug. 6, he will begin a new chapter of this story, when Salinas himself walks the stage at the Montagne Center — the first in his family to graduate college, defying the odds, choosing a different road for himself.

Had he simply followed the path society paved for him, he may never have actualized their dream. Had hard work not been instilled in him from such an early age, Salinas may never have gone that extra mile.

‘I made it a mission to not become another statistic.’

The senior social work major was born and bred in Baytown, in a poor neighborhood where your fate was already decided for you, where the people you know and love are not owed anything, much less an education. Salinas was born with the innate understanding that everyone, himself included, is consigned by statistics to a life without freedom or an early grave.

 “I did not come from a well-educated family, so the aspect of hard work is something that I learned from a very young age,” he said. “What inspired me to attend college was my situation — I grew up in a lower socioeconomic area and many of my family members and fellow community members didn’t have the option to go to school or pursue higher education, so I felt I owed it to myself and my family to try and do something good in this world rather than adding to the pattern of becoming criminals and suffering from substance abuse that has plagued my family for generations.”Lorenzo Salinas
Fueled by this environment, Salinas decided to unfold his own myth. If college was not in the cards, he would deal his own hand.

“I saw how most of my friends and family members were either dead from violence or drugs, incarcerated or committing criminal acts and this motivated me to want to make a difference in the community so that future young people do not have to endure the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration prevalent in lower socioeconomic areas,” he said. “Understanding this, I made it a mission to not become ‘another statistic.’”

Salinas knew the daunting road he faced was uphill. It was a dedicated and feverous determination that clawed at him, despite the roadblocks that lay ahead.

 “I never had many advantages; I wasn’t the smartest and couldn’t afford college. On top of that, I suffer from severe ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), so the goal I had to go to college seemed relatively impossible,” he said. “But I knew that my work ethic and hunger to succeed could get me there and I made the commitment that no matter how much smarter some were than me or how many other advantages they had, I would outwork them every day. I would be the first one to be at school and the last one to leave.”

And so he was. Salinas white-knuckled his way to the top 10% of his graduating class and was accepted to Bluffton University, a private university in Ohio. When COVID-19 ravaged the nation, he made the decision to return home. But not before he got the first taste of what would be a lifelong pursuit.

“I did not know about social work until I got into college and heard a social worker speak at an event in Ohio,” Salinas said. “I was so moved by the work she did and everything about being a social worker. I changed my major from criminal justice to social work the next day.”

With a newfound passion in tow, Salinas said he was drawn to Lamar University for its social work program.

‘Being from the area I am from is like being
caught in a fast-flowing river, with obstacles at
every corner and constant force pushing on you,
trying to drown you. I feel Lamar University was
the branch that I held on to and helped get me to shore.’

“I knew that if I wanted to be successful in the field, I needed to go to the best college for the area. Lamar University’s reputation for excellence is what drove me here and I can honestly say that (transferring here) was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “Being from the area I am from is like being caught in a fast-flowing river, with obstacles at every corner and constant force pushing on you, trying to drown you. I feel Lamar University was the branch that I held on to and helped get me to shore.”

Indeed, Salinas credits his success here to the professors that helped guide him in every step of his journey to graduation.

Lorenzo Salinas“The social work professors at LU believed in me every step of the way and gave me the skills and empowered me to become a great social worker and adhere to the NASW (National Association of Social Workers) code of ethics,” he said. “At LU, I fell in love with social work and fell in love with education; the professors at LU pushed me to apply to graduate school and continue to beat the odds.”

Now, after years of dogged determination and with a degree in his sights, Salinas relishes in the label of “first-generation graduate.”

“It means the world to me and my family being a first-generation college graduate,” he said. “I never thought I could do it — like I feel like I’m living a dream. I put so much hard work to change the trajectory of my family history and now I can be the role model for others in that same situation.”

Salinas knows that by earning his degree, he is honoring his grandparents’ legacy — the worn road they paved for him all those years ago.

 “I am honoring their legacy by obtaining my degree, along with continuing the precedent of hard work they set when they made the decision to move to a new country in pursuit of a better life and becoming a role model for other Hispanic kids and kids from lower socioeconomic areas,” he said. “I feel I am honoring their legacy by showing people from communities like mine that we can do more than be criminals and drug addicts. That we can achieve the same things as others through hard work and dedication. And I feel that I can honor their legacy by inspiring other Hispanics to do the same.”

‘I want to be someone who fights
for the common person.
And be someone who inspires people
to do things that seem impossible.’

With degree in decisive hand, Salinas said he is living the dream they envisioned for him when they set out on that arduous journey.

“I am living the life they dreamt for me by pursuing higher education, winning awards in college and working hard every day, keeping my same hunger and drive that got me to this point,” he said, highlighting a particularly proud moment in his academic career when he was awarded the Lamar University Social Work Student of the Year and Lamar University Spirit of Social Work awards at the program’s ceremony in April. “Being the first ever Hispanic male to win these awards at Lamar University has to be one of the proudest moments of my life. To see how my family went from just coming to this country to now attending an award ceremony. The humble beginnings made this moment so much more worth it; to have all this work pay off and receive this recognition is unreal to me.”Lorenzo Salinas

Now, he sets his sights on the future, planning to continue his education at the University of Houston to obtain a Master of Public Policy and a Master of Social Work.

 “My dream is to work in the government in some form or fashion and to empower vulnerable populations to become their own advocates,” Salinas said. “Overall, I want to be someone who fights for the common person. And be someone who inspires people to do things that seem impossible.”

Until then, he looks forward to walking that stage in August, summa cum laude and a member of the Social Work Honors Society.

“I can say that it will be a huge accomplishment to have finally beat the odds and did something that will change my family history forever. I think it will feel like I just won the Olympics because that’s how hard it is for someone from my neighborhood to make it out and do something besides go to prison, participate in criminal activities or abuse substances,” he said. “LU gave me a chance to live, because without Lamar University and all of the professors who helped me along the way, I may have been another statistic like many of my friends and family members.”

But Salinas refused to be another statistic. He can now be counted among the ones who made it. Though he has his own dream now, this Cardinal is ready to turn another page in the story that began all those years ago, all those miles ago.

Salinas looks to the bright future, the road ahead; but he is done walking. Now comes a moment of feeling the wings he’s grown, lifting.