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Home / Archive / Spotlight - February 2008

From Rural Mexico, to GWC, to Pepperdine School of Law

GWC Alumnus Roberto Valenzuela discusses his educational journey

The Statesman (TS): Roberto, tell us a little about yourself and your education prior to college.

Roberto Valenzuela (RV): I come from an interesting mix of cultures. My mother is from Italian and Pennsylvania Dutch stock, while my father is Mexican. Born in Palo Alto, CA, I spent my first few years in the heart of Silicon Valley yuppiedom. My father was a systems analyst at Hewlett-Packard, and my mother was a journalist in the area. Concerned with bringing their children up in an environment that would help them learn the correct values, my parents chose to move the family to my father's family ranch in Mexico when I was five years old.

My brother and I grew up here, in rural Mexico, where we were home schooled. The closest city worthy of the title was two hours away, half of that over unimproved dirt roads that required a jeep to travel safely. It was a serene, peaceful, and introspective existence. We would do our schoolwork in the morning, do chores, and spend the rest of the time reading, for the most part. As such, I became a voracious reader in terms of both depth and breadth, which, in hindsight, has been the single greatest advantage I have had in the educational process.

TS: Tell us about your undergraduate experience.

RV: As with many home schooled children permitted to learn at their own pace, in the manner that suits them best, I advanced through school much more rapidly than my public-schooled peers. At the tender age of fifteen, I was already done with high school, and looking for the next educational challenge. My parents and I discussed what I was looking for in a college education. We agreed that I should seek a school with a model that went above and beyond the normal model of higher education and sought to cultivate the mind as a holistic entity, rather than simply cramming it with indoctrinating information.

Naturally, George Wythe College lent itself very well to what I sought. We had heard about GWC from our Arizona state representative, Gail Griffin, who was so enthused about the quality of education that she took several distance classes. This, combined with even a cursory examination of GWC's syllabi and educational model, caused GWC to rise very early to the top of the list of schools I was considering. I attended a college event and was captivated by the school's mission. I decided I had found an educational experience I could truly relish and utilize, no matter what I ended up doing with it.

I enrolled in the Distance Studies program, which meshed well with my desire to pursue a nontraditional model for education (though "nontraditional" is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, since GWC's overarching educational model is a throwback to the greatest schools throughout history). What impressed me most about GWC was the degree to which its educational model cultivates depth and excellence of thought. It is safe to say that at almost any other school, my intellectual and ethical growth would have been stifled in some way or another.  At GWC, however, the focus on virtue, wisdom, diplomacy, and courage provides the curriculum with a strong framework that is nevertheless adaptable to each student's strengths and needs.

By far the most impressive aspect of GWC's education, however, and the one that has had the greatest impact on me, has been its holism. Students are expected to be able to relate any aspect of their education to their immediate circumstances, in a sort of unified field theory of liberal arts, if you will. This was poignantly underscored by the final oral exam, where I was called to answer, from memory, everything from locating the Carpathian Mountains on a map to diagramming portions of the Constitution.

This development of both actual knowledge as well as comprehensive and meaningful analysis is the keystone of a George Wythe education, and I have yet to see it replicated, even in students from the top schools in the nation. In dead seriousness, since my graduation three and a half years ago, I have only met one person my age outside GWC (from Hillsdale College, another excellent school) with whom I could dialogue and debate on the level present in my education. Because of this, I have been a tireless advocate of GWC among my family and acquaintances, challenging them with the school's mission and urging them to pursue greatness in life and education, rather than settling for the myopic mediocrity of the mainstream and commonplace.

TS: Tell us about your decision to apply to law school.  Did the unaccredited status of your undergraduate degree have any impact on that process?

RV: Given the quality of my undergraduate education, it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up pursuing intellectual challenge once again in my postgraduate life. I spent a little over a year cooling my heels, as it were, teaching English in Japan, traveling to visit old friends, and doing odd jobs here and there. Eventually, however, I made the decision to attend law school. I was able to score high on the LSAT and received several excellent scholarship offers from various schools, which is proof that graduation from an unaccredited school is no impediment to mainstream recognition. I attribute this to the excellent writing and analytical skills GWC had helped me develop, along with the various valuable internships and experiences I had done during the course of my education. If GWC's lack of accreditation had any negative impact on my law school application process, I certainly did not perceive it.

In hindsight, my choice of schools was deeply influenced by the values developed during my time at GWC. I eventually chose to attend Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California, in large part because in it I recognized the devotion to higher ideals and sense of mission that had been so prevalent at GWC.  While the other law schools which were courting me proclaimed what excellent technical skills and marketability I would acquire in their programs, Dean  Kenneth Starr suggested that a legal education was about strengthening one's life for purpose, service, and leadership. This reflected the same void in fundamentals between mainstream schools and GWC, and made the decisive difference in my choice of schools.

TS: Tell us about law school.  Is it what you expected?  What impact has your GWC background had on your experience there?  How do you feel you compare to your peers?

RV: As I write this, I am just a few weeks into my second semester here at Pepperdine. In many ways, it is exactly what I expected; tremendous amounts of reading, perplexing legal conundrums, and fascinating questions about the nature of order in society. In many other ways, it is not at all what I expected. Pepperdine, while largely holding to the same great ethical and educational principles that undergird GWC, is still a more mainstream educational institution in many respects. I suspect that, because of my extremely nontraditional education, there is at least a bit of "culture shock" involved in transitioning into the highly structured life of a law student. Nevertheless, I am emphatic that GWC gave me exactly the right intellectual preparation for such an analytically-based education. To use a distinction popular in certain sectors of contract law, the law school experience is procedurally, rather than substantively, a difficult adaptation for me to make. From the substantive angle, I feel that GWC has indeed given me an edge over the rest of my classmates, since I'm already expert in looking for the heart of an issue and dividing it into its component thoughts.

TS: What are your plans once you finish law school?

RV: As to the future... who knows for sure? I'm learning so much at law school, and discovering new things I never though I'd be interested in. I've found that I love property law, of all things, and I've also begun to take more than a passing interest in the Air Force JAG program. At the same time, however, I've experienced a renaissance of my faith, and am very seriously considering going to seminary after law school and applying my Pepperdine degree to the study of canon (Church) law.

TS: Looking back, would you do anything different?  What advice would you give to young people?

RV: Looking back on the totality of my educational experience, my only regret is that in learning one thing, sometimes another opportunity has to be missed! Had I had the time and resources, I would have loved to spend a full four years on-campus at GWC, in addition to all the traveling and other experiences I was able to have as a distance student. I do think that, for distance students interested in pursuing a postgraduate degree at a more "mainstream" university, it would be advisable to spend at least a year or two on-campus, in order to become a bit better acclimated to (and prepared for) the "feel" of a university classroom environment. The one thing I would like young students to take away from my experience, however, is the necessity for a holistic and principled approach to education and indeed life in general.

Socrates tells us that the first step toward wisdom is acknowledgment that one, in fact, knows nothing. Certainly, this has been my experience, even as much as I have learned at GWC and at Pepperdine. Humility in education (and indeed in all areas of life) is the paramount principle I would want to pass on to future generations. True learning can only be done with an open heart and great love for others. I myself have only realized this to its barest extent, but in truth, what you learn is absolutely useless, and even detrimental, unless it is learned and used for the right reasons. The pursuit of the Truth, therefore, is the greatest of all callings and missions. It is also, sadly, the least emphasized in the modern world. This is the greatest challenge the coming generations will face. If we do not seek to humbly cultivate ourselves and prepare our minds and bodies for lovingly helping others in the service of the Truth, we are doomed to drown, either in relativism on the one hand, or narrow-minded legalism on the other.

God has prepared a great and terrible and wonderful destiny for us. It is our responsibility, our duty, and our joy in answering the call to become "men and women of virtue, wisdom, diplomacy, and courage, who inspire greatness in others and move the cause of liberty."

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Roberto Valenzuela graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Statesmanship, magna cum laude, from George Wythe College in 2004.