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Troubled Immigrant Rises To Dallas Inspiration

Thursday, Sep 19, 2013  |  Updated 4:13 PM CDT
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Raul Magdaleno was born in Mexico, raised in Dallas. After a troubled childhood filled with frustration and poverty, he earned honors from Congress for public service and later a degree from Southern Methodist University. He later returned to SMU to establish the Dept. of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Kristi Nelson, NBC 5 News

Raul Magdaleno was born in Mexico, raised in Dallas. After a troubled childhood filled with frustration and poverty, he earned honors from Congress for public service and later a degree from Southern Methodist University. He later returned to SMU to establish the Dept. of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Raul Magdaleno gives speeches probably like you've never heard before.

"I hope that you will find hope in my brokenness," said Magdaleno to a group of 20 teen-aged summer church campers at Willow Grove Baptist Church.

Magdaleno was born near Mexico City. Before he was 2-years-old, his family arrived in Dallas.

"And a few months later, my dad got locked up in prison leaving my mom to raise 10 children on her own," he said.

He told the students he was an immigrant who didn't speak English and his father was a criminal.  By 8-years-old, his family collapsed.

"I saw all of my brothers go to prison," Magdaleno said. "At 8-years-old, all my sisters dropped out of high school. By this time, my mother had become remarried to a very abusive dad."

Add to all of this, Magdaleno had to help raise an older sister with Down's Syndrome.

"And then you've got to bathe her, you've got to cook her," explained Magdaleno. "And all of the sudden, at 8-years-old, I was asked to be an  adult.  So yeah I was angry."

The Magdaleno's moved into a one bedroom efficiency in East Dallas. It was filled with drug dealing and rats. But he founded a gospel choir for children.

"We had about five students gather here every Thursday night," Magdaleno said. "And the next thing you know we had 60 children that filled up this entire [fire] pit."

That was just the beginning of the turnaround. At 13-years-old, he started volunteering at a local shelter.  He later became the only member of his family to graduate from high school.
One day while attending community college, the White House called. He paraphrased part of the phone call for the students.

"Raul, because of the work that you've done since you were 13-years-old, you will be receiving the Congressional award gold medal of honor," he said.

Another call further changed his life.

"I had just got $30,000 to go to any school I wanted in the world," Magdaleno said "I got accepted to Harvard, Yale, Columbia and this school named Oxford... I was like 'who is she'?"

Magdaleno choose Southern Methodist University, in part to stay in Dallas and support his family. He lived in the same homeless shelter where he volunteered as a teenager.

"Imagine going from a homeless shelter to Highland Park and being reminded of how poor you are," Magdaleno said.

In 2006, he graduated as the top student in public affairs at SMU. He remains close with his mother and will soon adopt his disabled sister.

Magdaleno established the Department of Diversity and Community Engagement at SMU.

He consults with school districts across the country on how to reach "at risk" students.. essentially, children just like him.

"Because those students that have been marginalized, have been overlooked, they're a reflection of me," Magdaleno said.

"Education I believe is the greatest weapon we have to fight poverty. Because when your education, not only are you lifting yourself up, you're lifting your family, you're lifting your entire community along with you."
 

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