FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) - Angeles Lewis, a former gang member and drug dealer, is a driving force behind the success of students this year in San Juan College's General Educational Development program.
Lewis, who passed the GED exam last year, returned this year as the program's first student tutor. The program could not have made a better hire, both staff and students said.
"To me, it's my way of giving back to the community," said Lewis, now an engineering student at the college.
Students in the past six months have responded exceptionally well to the lumbering tutor, who has a soft voice and smile but also has a rough background that many of his students relate to.
He speaks without regard for grammatical accuracy, using double negatives and words like "ain't."
But that's part of the way that he reaches the students in the GED program, a program that helps students pass a high school diploma equivalency exam.
"They call me teacher, but I don't talk like a teacher," said Lewis. "I don't have no tie."
Lewis, who once founded his own gang and lived off profits he made selling drugs, teaches students using his own simplified explanations and a charm that has helped him become a successful scholar, and a successful criminal.
"I just have a personality," he said.
Though in years past that personality helped build his reputation on the streets, it now has helped strengthen the confidence of students hoping to overcome personal feats and pursue higher education.
Incarceration, addiction, poverty, and health all have stood in the way of students graduating from the GED program, but he is able to help those students move forward.
"Honestly, we had no idea how it would work," said Michelle Meeks, director of the adult basic education department at San Juan College.
The department for years had wanted to hire a student tutor, a position it was able to add this year because of an approved application for federal rollover funds.
The department set aside $1,800 for the tutor position, which entails about 20 hours of tutoring per week from the beginning of January to the end of June.
"I can't tell you what it's done for our students, and what it's done for him," Meeks said.
Lewis, who excels in math, has a newfound pride and also responsibility that has rubbed off on many of his own students who look up to him.
He even finds himself speaking with a little more care for his grammar, which he never learned well because of a lasting disapproval of his high school English teacher.
Math, on the other hand, always came easily to him.
"It's one of the biggest hiccups for our students," said Meeks, who said math, for most students, is the most challenging.
Lewis, who initially changed his lifestyle for his children, now has other students that are looking to him to set an example.
About 50 or 60 of his students will walk across the stage on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Learning Commons Plaza at San Juan College.
Of the 274 students receiving GED diplomas through the program this year, about 150 attended the program at a given time; 108 attended this year.
"New doors are opening," said Lewis, who hopes to continue his own education by graduating from San Juan College with an associate's degree in engineering.
He later hopes to attend the University of New Mexico or Fort Lewis College for a degree in chemical engineering.
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