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Professor details his road to college


Dr. Ventura Perez – an assistant professor of anthropology who received both his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts – wasn’t always in the top echelon of academia. In fact, in high school he had a 1.2 grade point average.

“I wasn’t supposed to go to college,” Perez said in a lecture yesterday at Draper Hall.

He then passed a copy of his high school transcript around the table. His guidance counselors told him that college wasn’t for everyone and that he should consider an alternative direction for his future.

So after high school, he began working at the Aluminum Company of America in Illinois, where his father and uncle had led successful careers. He also married his wife, Kathleen Brown-Perez, who now teaches Native American and Criminal Law in the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass.

But it didn’t take long for him to realize that it wasn’t what he wanted to do or where he wanted to be.

“The more I hated it, the more I was going to do anything to get that degree,” Perez said.

He worked at the factory long enough to put his wife through an MBA program and law school at the University of Iowa, in addition to enrolling himself in Blackhawk College in Moline, Ill. Perez got his first A- grade at Blackhawk for a paper he wrote about early hominids. He later went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Iowa.

When his wife passed the bar exam in Arizona, Perez was ready to fill out his quit slip from the factory. Under the reason for leaving heading, he wrote: “To receive my Ph.D. in biological anthropology.”

But getting into graduate school turned out to be more challenging than he thought it would be. The Department of Anthropology at UMass, he noted, receives 140 applications for 10 spots. It’s immensely competitive, he said.

On his first round of applications, Perez was rejected from every school he applied to. But, like most of the roadblocks he encountered, that wasn’t enough to deter him. He gained experience in the field by volunteering at a medical examiner’s office in Maricopa County, Ariz.

And by the time he was ready to apply again, he already had experience assisting with 25 autopsies.

He then was accepted to UMass.

And, years later, just two hours after defending his dissertation, he was hired by the University and began his teaching career here.

The first course he taught, and still teaches today, is called Violence in American Culture. In his own educational journey, Perez said he found that he learned most effectively when he had to write and think.

Those experiences translated into his pedagogy, as his classes have no quizzes or tests. Instead, they are focused around readings, essays and a 30-hour community service component in which students have the opportunity to apply what they learn in the field.

Perez’s talk yesterday was called “Telling Your Story: My Yellow Brick Road to College” series, sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Multicultural Achievement and Student Success.

Perez was presented with the Distinguished Teaching Award, a prestigious, campus-wide honor for which he was nominated by current students and alumni, in 2005 when he was a graduate assistant.

“[The] road blocks taught me that they’re not the end of the road to that dream,” Perez noted. “You just have to be a little sneaky to get around them.”

David Barnstone can be reached at

One Response to “Professor details his road to college”
  1. mason says:

    Wow how inspiring, this story filled my heart with hope and conviction.

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