DALLAS – As the son of Mexican-American immigrants living in a predominantly Spanish-speaking, low-income community of Oak Cliff, Texas, Adan Gonzalez, was not supposed to attend Georgetown University.

He was not supposed to earn a Master’s in Education Policy and Management from Harvard.

He was not supposed to combat the very system that had attempted to limit him and, as Gonzalez puts it, “was not created for the most vulnerable.”

But Gonzalez, founder of Puede Network – a youth education and leadership development program – has never been one to listen to what the system told him to do.

He simply couldn’t. Not after seeing his father shot when he was a child. With his father disabled, he knew he needed to quickly grow up and out of the status quo.

Gonzalez, now 24, began selling Coca-Cola, snacks and DVDs at a local flea market to help his parents pay for his school uniforms. But he realized those efforts could only get him so far.

In hopes that an education would give him and his family a better life, he sat on the curb outside a local McDonald’s, using a borrowed laptop and hacked Wi-Fi access, to write an application for the Coca-Cola Scholars Program scholarship.

It’s a decision that changed his life.

Gonzalez stands outside of his childhood apartment

Adan The Scholar

Along with the 251 other students selected out of more than 70,000 applicants from across the country, Gonzalez traveled to Atlanta, Ga., for the Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend in the spring of 2011.

The weekend was filled with bonding between Scholars and interviews to determine who would receive additional scholarship funds.

“Just going to Atlanta was a scholarship in itself,” Gonzalez says. “It opened up my mind and my eyes to something greater than myself.”

Beyond exposure to new people and ideas, the weekend provided a network of encouragement. As Gonzalez shared his story and aspirations, one interviewer took off his tie and offered it to Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez celebrates with other Coca-Cola Scholars in Atlanta at the 2011 Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend

Gonzalez’s eyes brim with emotion as he remembers the interviewer’s words: “I give this to you because I believe in you.”

“I think a lot of times in my life, people have believed in me before I believed in myself,” Gonzalez reflects.

Gonzalez still has the tie given to him during Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend

Long after Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend, the network of people who believed in Gonzalez proved invaluable as he made his way to college and navigated the unfamiliar world of higher education.

He recalls flying to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., carrying his belongings in trash bags. He moved into a dorm room the size of his apartment in Texas where his family of six lived.

As soon as he arrived on campus, a Georgetown upperclassmen and fellow Coca-Cola Scholar took him under his wing, teaching Gonzalez how to study and sign up for classes, making the transition easier to manage.

Adan The Disruptor

Gonzalez’s classroom

Turning to his new peer mentor and his professors for guidance, Gonzalez spent the first few months of college getting his papers torn apart as he relearned how to approach school. He remained motivated by thinking of the community that raised him.

“I discovered how education granted me my freedom,” Gonzalez continues. “It gave me a responsibility to make sure that as I'm progressing, people are coming up with me.

“I didn’t know much… but what I did know? I knew a community. I knew people who were desperate for an opportunity to show their potential.”

As Gonzalez worked to keep up with his academics, he also dedicated himself to supporting those back home. During his sophomore year, he began an annual luggage collection drive so future college-bound students from his hometown wouldn’t have to arrive at school toting trash bags, as he’d done.

But he knew kids in his community needed more than luggage. They needed access to educational opportunities like those he was experiencing. They needed to become a network of scholars.

Thus, Puede Network was born. Inspired by the Coca-Cola Scholars community, Gonzalez sought to create “a safety net of people that help each other.”

Puede Network prepares kids of all ages for higher education, developing them into leaders and community stewards. To be a scholar, students must participate in group activities – sports, music and art – as well as conduct community service. They are also required to read.

“Once you're able to read, you don't have to wait for someone to tell you what to think,” Gonzalez explains. “You can make decisions yourself.”

With this mental autonomy, Gonzalez hopes his students can disrupt the systems that often limit them. “Being disruptive allows each individual to own their own identity,” he explains. “To be themselves – to not follow the pattern, to not accept the status quo.”

Gonzalez continues, “I've learned the most when I'm uncomfortable. If I'm uncomfortable in circles that are not like the hood, I have to bring the hood to them. It's time to start having a dialogue and connect communities and hearts. Once you connect the heart, you connect the mind… and then we can start changing the world.”

Adan the Community Leader

To change the world, Gonzalez wants to start at home.

He spends much of his days teaching in the same elementary school classroom where he once sat as a student. The room is now full of sparkling new desks and digital tablets that he personally purchased for his students.

When he’s not teaching or providing after school tutoring, he’s likely at a nearby park, helping coach Puede Scholars in soccer. He can also be found in his parents’ backyard, now converted into a space for kids to learn boxing when it’s not being used for Puede Network community meetings.

“What keeps me going is that I'm walking the same streets I grew up in. I'm walking the same halls where I went to school,” Gonzalez says. “It's recognizing the talent that my community has.”

Gonzalez leads a community Puede Network meeting

He continues, “Now, for that kid who one day will be sitting at the curb hacking into Wi-Fi, borrowing a laptop to apply to college scholarships…”

He undoes his tie, holding it with an outstretched arm.

“This is what someone did for me and that's what I'll do. I'll hand them my tie because someone believed in me when I didn’t even know what I was about to go into.

“That's what Puede Network is about, believing in each other, believing in community and believing in our future.  So, si se puede, yes, we can.”

Adan Gonzalez