College Sports

Struggle And Loss Propel Survivor To Pursue Degree

Bernardo Zepeda is close to reaching two major goals: attaining a college degree and becoming a U.S. citizen.  (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)
Bernardo Zepeda is close to reaching two major goals: attaining a college degree and becoming a U.S. citizen. (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)

Not math, not English, not the death of his father, not money — nothing is going to stop Bernardo Zepeda from getting a college degree.

The bioengineering junior at the University of California at Merced is heralded by friends, colleagues and teachers as a role model to many Central Valley residents who don't think attending college is realistic.

Whether people view a college education as out of reach because of money or academics, Zepeda says he did it, and so can they.

Zepeda, 22, is persistence personified. He overcame a yearslong struggle with math. He coped with the deaths of his father and best friend. He survived life-threatening injuries in a car crash in his early teens. And he learned to speak English and earned U.S. resident status after illegally entering from Mexico.

"You have to believe in it, have persistence, have motivation," he said.

Zepeda's short life story is a tragic struggle:

His family illegally immigrated to California when he was 6. He quickly learned English by watching TV so he could keep up in his classes and translate for his parents. The family first settled in Patterson and later moved to Turlock.

While a junior in high school, Zepeda was working crops with his father over the summer. Returning home one day, Zepeda asked to drive. Their truck was hit head-on by a car that was passing a slower vehicle. Zepeda's father, Cesar, died, but Zepeda survived. Rehabilitation took months. He recovered from a broken foot, leg, hip and arms; doctors reconstructed his legs, arms, elbow, foot and jaw.

After barely graduating from Turlock High School, Zepeda enrolled at Merced College. It took him six years, counting high school, to pass algebra. He owes that accomplishment to studying with David Ybarra, a classmate who quickly became a best friend. Ybarra died in a 2005 car crash, throwing Zepeda into another emotional tailspin.

Zepeda, the oldest of five children, changed educational paths several times — from liberal studies to business before settling on bioengineering.

"After my car accident, I wanted to do something meaningful. The medical field was able to do so much for me, I owe it to them," Zepeda said.

Zepeda chose UC Merced because he wanted to stay near his family and double-major in medicine and engineering. He was accepted to top science schools UCLA, University of California at Berkeley and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He hopes to go into stem cell research.

"He could be the poster child for the value of studying with your buddies," said Don Power, math instructor at Merced College. "He's a great role model — to see how far he's gone."

Much of what Zepeda does today is in memory of his father and his friend.

"My dad was simple, humble, practical," Zepeda said. "His dream was for us to be legal. When I hear, 'I'm Already There' by Lonestar, I think of my dad's dreams for me and I think, 'I'm already there.' "

Already a legal resident, Zepeda said he's a few months shy of earning U.S. citizenship.

Zepeda's struggles have been many, but he focuses on the positive. To pay for college, he seeks out multiple scholarships and worked as a bus boy at Red Robin. He'll soon start working in a biology research lab with a UC Merced professor and tutoring students in Modesto.

When asked about advice he'd give others hoping for a college education, Zepeda emphasized the dream.

"You just have to dream, you just have to believe in yourself," he said. "Although I knew what was realistic, I always felt that (the system is) just not the way it should be."

Not only does Zepeda stand out as a role model, but he also spends time mentoring and tutoring students. "Once you see it as a reality, you place yourself there," he said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.