Beyond KIPP – A Firefighter’s Journey
Kevin Gonzales, KIPP King Alum & Cal East Bay student
I am firefighter, and I’m proud to be pursuing a career that helps people. That is what drives me: helping people and their gratitude.
I began high school at San Leandro High where my soccer coach was undergoing the process to become a firefighter with Oakland and he spoke with such joy and motivation that I aspired to have that passion that one day, too. I transferred to KIPP King in San Lorenzo and am very grateful for my mother’s dedication to my education. The qualities and values I had adopted through school and soccer played a fundamental role in my becoming a firefighter. Many aspects like teamwork and discipline carry over to the fire service.
I worked on a team that fought the fires in Sonoma County and last year’s Kincade Fires. That was one of the craziest things I’ve ever experienced. At first, I was in shock because it was just so massive, and the fire was blowing over the houses, going into cars, were getting consumed, and it picked up from one spot to another. There were winds of 90 miles per hour, so our main task was to protect houses–to make enough clearance around the buildings so the fire wouldn’t push up against them and catch. Thankfully, we did end up saving a lot of homes. There were three people in my engine, the engineer, another firefighter, and myself. Being the new guy, I definitely learned a lot from them.
This year, I decided to take the season off to finish my last semester at Cal State East Bay. I have still been volunteering at the fire department, and I’ve been dispatched to help fight some of the local fires. I did feel some guilt and wished I could have been there more to help out on the front lines. I am definitely looking forward to graduating this year and returning as a full time firefighter with Cal Fire.
I’m really grateful for KIPP Through College and the support they gave me as I found my own path.
What I love most about being a firefighter is the team & family part of it. I like the structure of having a captain and clear orders, as well as the teamwork of working together towards a goal. I especially appreciate the significance of wearing a uniform. I used to complain about the school uniforms when I was a KIPP student, but eventually I realized that I liked how I didn’t have to worry about what to wear the next day or what people said about how I was dressed; the uniform actually made me feel a part of something important.
Turns out that attending KIPP King Collegiate in San Lorenzo was one of the best decisions my parents could have made for me. Like firefighting, KIPP feels like a family. Everybody knows each other and the teachers really help you out. They stayed after school, gave us their attention, and answered all of our questions. I went to San Jose State on a soccer scholarship, but didn’t actually get to play because I got injured. I considered a few majors, but none stood out to me. I remembered how fondly one of my old soccer coaches talked about the firefighter program, and I decided to look into it.
When I told my KIPP Through College advisor Alissa my choice to be a firefighter she said, “You know what? I don’t know much about it, but let me look into it.” She did some research and helped me figure out how to accomplish my goal; I took my general education classes at Chabot and SF City College and enrolled in all the required training courses and took all the testing to become a volunteer firefighter and a Cal Fire member.
There can be a lot of pressure to pursue a career that requires a four-year degree right out of high school, but I’m really grateful for KIPP Through College and the support they gave as I found my own path.
As I embraced my dream career, I was also working on getting my BA in sociology, and, one day I plan to also get my masters. My parents always told me to keep studying. My KIPP Through College advisor Alissa supported that, too. She even printed out a PDF of my academic plan and everything! I know that the Cal East Bay students in my classes that didn’t go to KIPP don’t have a counselor who has been supporting them since high school. I could tell that they felt kind of lost sometimes.
I know that feeling. I’ve also lived and existed in my own little bubble, even within my own community. Someone may view a situation differently depending on their personal experiences. For example, as the only Latino firefighter in my station, I try to apply what I’m learning in my sociology courses to understand how I can best work in a predominantly white environment. Studying sociology is helping me learn how to connect effectively to other people from different backgrounds and get me out of my comfort zone. Even though it feels like I’m very different from my team, I can still learn from them and teach them and become a better firefighter. Getting along with the other firefighters and all the different personalities in the firehouse has been one of the biggest lessons. Just the simple task of having to cook for a whole bunch of people was new!
My sister goes to KIPP now, and I tell her that she is preparing for the future, for what’s to come, and how to be a successful adult. I’m grateful my parents chose KIPP for me and my siblings. I found my own path to success and, as I keep moving forward, I know I’ll have the help and support whenever I need it.
(Oh, and a special shout out to the KIPP King Soccer team–2013 champs! Go Lions!)