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photo of Yvette as Graduation Speaker

Every Day we are Given a Gift

An interview with GWC Alumnus Yvette Verastegui

Our alumnus for this issue is a model of inspiration and determination for all of us. Yvette was born and raised in an impoverished area in Santa Ana. We thought the path this professional woman took, starting from a challenging environment early in life, to the respected career of Deputy Public Defender, Los Angeles, County, would inspire our readers.

As a student at GWC in the late 1980s, Yvette was an active volunteer in EOP/S (Extended Opportunities Programs & Services) and the Intercultural Center. She also worked on campus as a classified hourly employee while attending the University of California, Irvine, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1993 she earned a juris doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley (Boalt Hall School of Law). Yvette was the 2004 Commencement Speaker and a GWC Alumni Pillar of Achievement recipient in 2004.

Describe your life growing up in an impoverished area in Santa Ana.
Reflecting back on my childhood, growing up in Santa Ana, I’ve realized how impoverished we were. However, as a child, I didn’t see myself as impoverished at all. My childhood, though very unusual, was rich and memorable, both good and bad.

How did you find the inner strength and determination to reach the goal of succeeding in life despite the many obstacles you faced?
Everyone has a story. Everyone has experiences which have shaped him or her. My story, my experience, happens to be that I was placed in foster care and emancipated from the foster care system. Being placed in foster care, along with my siblings, changed our environment somewhat, not necessarily for the better. I believe that my strength came from a culmination of experiences in my childhood which were both negative and positive. The negative was certainly a driving force in my determination to become a lawyer. More importantly, though, beyond my achievement of becoming a lawyer, my story, my experiences, have shaped me in a way that I hope reflects the person I am and continue to aspire to be.

You mentioned that you attribute your success to family, professors and fellow students.
I have been so fortunate to have been given the opportunity of an amazing education. I am so grateful to have received the best education possible from GWC, UCI, and UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law.

I do attribute my success to my family, professors and fellow students for a number of reasons. Early on in my education I was challenged in many ways. Perhaps because I was a girl or because no one in my family had graduated from High School the importance of an education was not stressed by my parents. Although I thoroughly enjoyed school and earned A’s in my classes some of my teachers expressed little interest in my academic achievements. Regardless of their lack of faith in my abilities to rise above my environment and their low expectations for me, I had the inner strength to believe that with hard work I would be able to achieve academic success.

Not all of my family was indifferent regarding my education. My brother, sisters and cousins were very supportive. Similarly, I was blessed to have some teachers that saw my potential. Having both negative and positive educational experiences has made me more appreciative of the education I have received from GWC, UCI, and UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law. While attending these fine academic institutions my professors and fellow students challenged and inspired me to do my very best. Now, it is my husband Raul and son Gabriel who challenges and inspires me like no other.

What types of community involvement/activities have you been involved in and/ or are currently involved in?
I am still involved in the Orangewood Children’s Foundation which assists youth currently in foster care and youth that have emancipated from the foster care system. I am actively involved and a Board Member of the Latina Lawyers Bar Association, only one of two Associations of its kind in the United States. I am also actively involved in the Booster Club at my son’s public school.

I am a member of Mexican American Bar Association, Los Angeles County Bar Association), Women’s Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and the California Public Defender’s Association.

What made you decide on the career path that led to your current position?

I decided to become a lawyer when I was in elementary school. I felt a calling to the profession. Even though I didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer, I knew that a lawyer could help someone in need. I wanted to be that kind of lawyer. Naturally, I chose to practice public interest law, working for the Public Defender’s Office. In my capacity as a Public Defender, I am able to help people in need every day.

Please tell us about the many honors you have received during your career and which ones mean the most to you.
Prosser Award in Family Law; Francine Diaz Award for Community Service; Orange County Public Defender of the Year; Pillar of Achievement Award; Commencement Speaker, GWC, Commencement Speaker, Otter Fischer High School (Orange County Juvenile Hall); Panel Speaker, California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; Panel Speaker, Criminal Justice, Racial Injustice Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law; EOP/S Consortium Scholarship; CASFAA Scholarship; Orangewood Children’s Foundation Scholarship; Argyros Scholar.

Of all the honors I have received, I think that the Public Defender of the Year Award is the one that means the most to me. It signifies and embodies all the best qualities of a Public Defender, an advocate for the most disenfranchised.

With the heavy schedule you have, how do you relax?

Most of my free time is spent on the soccer field watching my son play. My other hobbies include sewing, knitting, crocheting, and scrapbooking. Anything crafty! My husband constantly reminds me that I am not allowed to acquire a new hobby because, frankly, our house just isn’t big enough.

What kind of advice would you share with college students who are trying to find out who they are, as well as how to find a direction in life and what they must do to get there?
Don’t let others determine your destiny or direction. Be authentic and true to yourself. Remember, an education is a vehicle which will open doors and take you places. An education is more valuable than any singular possession. You may lose your home, car, or other things of value, but no one can ever take away your education!

What is your philosophy of life?
Every day we are given a gift. Every day we make choices. It is the choices that we make that will define the person we become. Make good & positive choices!