Focusing on the Bigger Picture — having a clear ultimate goal can help in those instances of self-doubt. My end goal was to become a lawyer, and I had to remind myself of that during those moments when everything seemed so hard and stacked against me. I considered giving up. I had to reframe those bumps in the road as stepping stones I had to cross to reach that goal.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Walter Osuna. He is a partner at The Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm, a plaintiff’s medical malpractice, personal injury, nursing home neglect, and civil rights firm located in New York. He is admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey. Raised in Tijuana, Mexico, Walter earned a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, in International Business at San Diego State University and earned his Juris Doctor from Fordham University School of Law.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico with my parents and two siblings. For most of my childhood, my parents owned a shop selling Mexican crafts on Avenida Revolucion, a street well known to tourists to the city, particularly those coming from San Diego.
I learned to speak English by working in my parents’ store and from living in a border town. The real reason I picked up English as a second language? I wanted to watch cartoons! At that time, there were limited kid shows in Spanish available. So English was a necessity.
I had a great experience growing up in Tijuana and was fortunate to be exposed to both American and Mexican cultures due to our proximity to the border. It was very common to cross the border for a meal or to go shopping. Also, most of my mother’s family lived in California, and we visited often.
I went to school in Tijuana until I was 18 years old. I was always a good and determined student. In High School I was part of the International Baccalaureate program, which is an educational program that focused on fostering critical thinking and building problem-solving skills to prepare to students to enter a globalized world. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this program facilitated my transition to a different education system in the United States.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
As a result of the increased safety precautions taken at the Tijuana-San Diego border after 9/11 and the ensuing long lines to enter Mexico, businesses reliant on tourism like my parents’ were significantly affected and we began to struggle financially. My parents started encouraging me to pursue an education in the United States to provide me with more options in the future. I was initially hesitant and wanted to continue my studies in Tijuana along with my friends. Since I was a child I wanted to become a lawyer and I knew that pursuing that goal in the United States would be much more difficult. In Mexico, you are able to practice as an attorney after completing your four-year undergrad degree, unlike in the United States, where you have to go to law school for three years in addition to your college education. I ultimately agreed with my parents and began searching for colleges in San Diego.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
When I had finally made up my mind to apply to college in the US, I found out that I had missed the deadlines to apply to four-year colleges in San Diego. I enrolled in a community college with the hope of being able to transfer to a four-year college. Due to financial constraints, I lived at home with my parents in Tijuana and travelled every day across the border by public transportation. That trip — one way — took four hours or more. My travel time could vary so widely that even if I left extra early, I could still wind up being late to school. There was a lot of napping involved while riding the San Diego Trolley, and I am proud to say that I only missed my stop once in two years.
I struggled academically during the first year. Although my English was good in comparison to my classmates in Tijuana, I was significantly behind my American peers. My writing definitely needed improvement and it was very frustrating for me to go from being among the top students to the bottom. In Tijuana, I was very vocal in class and even was part of the drama club. However, in San Diego, I felt that my English was not good enough and my accent was too thick — and I became timid and more self-conscious. I worried that I would never achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer and for a period of time, I did not consider this goal to be a possibility.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Aside from my amazing friends, I am very grateful to one of my English professors at Mesa Community College, Virginia Escalante. I remember being in her office while she was correcting one of my English papers. At one point I became very frustrated with my numerous spelling and grammatical errors and told her there was no point in continuing since my English was not going to improve and I was not going to be able to become a lawyer. She told me that my negative thinking was nonsense and highlighted the positives of my paper. She convinced me that my mistakes were fixable and encouraged me to push forward and continue to pursue a career in law. She was so supportive and so encouraging and really made me feel that I could do anything I put my mind to. She eventually wrote a recommendation letter for me to get into law school. A few years ago, she found my information online and called me to let me know that she had always known that I would reach my goal. She told me she recently had a similar conversation with a student who was also a non-native English speaker and wanted to pursue a law degree. The student reminded her so much of me that she asked if I could speak with the student to discuss my experience. I was glad to have the opportunity to provide encouraging words to her student just like she provided to me many years before.
So how are things going today?
I am happy to report that, despite the ups and downs and moments of doubt, I did became an attorney and I was recently promoted to partner at my firm.
As a result of moving to the United States and pursing a career here, I have made incredible friends along the way that are now family and made my move more manageable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As a plaintiff’s attorney, I represent people and stand up for their rights. I have helped hundreds of individuals with medical malpractice and civil rights claims achieve successful resolutions. These cases are important for these clients as well as for their families. As a native Spanish speaker, I am able to assist non-English speaking litigants with expressing themselves, and they are able to ask questions and understand the process directly from their attorney in their own language. My background has also enabled me to be more sympathetic to plaintiffs who have experienced injustices and/or the loss of loved ones.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
(1) More emphatic immigration policies. Particularly during the past administration, the policies in place seemed geared to vilify immigrants rather than recognize that these individuals or families are leaving their home countries for a better life and are willing and able to be contributing members of society if given the opportunity to do so.
(2) Facilitating legal immigration for blue-collar jobs. Priority appears to be given to highly educated individuals, however, it is crucial to recognize the importance and value of unskilled and skilled manual labor to the country.
(3) Provide a path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States and have proven to be valuable members of the community. Allowing these undocumented immigrants to live legally in the US would create more opportunities for them to contribute financially to the country.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
(1) Focusing on the Bigger Picture — having a clear ultimate goal can help in those instances of self-doubt. My end goal was to become a lawyer, and I had to remind myself of that during those moments when everything seemed so hard and stacked against me. I considered giving up. I had to reframe those bumps in the road as stepping stones I had to cross to reach that goal.
(2) Perseverance — A daily commute of at least four hours, between crossing the border and commuting on public transportation, was certainly not something that I was looking forward to, especially for an 8:00am class. However, through work study and a part-time job, I was eventually able to afford a car, which reduced my commute by half, and then I had the opportunity to move to San Diego on a permanent basis.
(3) Do not be afraid to ask for help. Use the resources available, either teachers, peers, friends, or non-for-profit organizations who can assist you in making the transition academically and/or professionally more seamless.
(4) Support System — Keep a good circle of friends, family, or peers around you. Making such a dramatic life change is difficult. You will need emotional support, and people who can lend an ear or a shoulder. It is invaluable to have someone to bounce ideas off of in those moments of doubt.
(5) Network — get involved with school organizations and/or events, which would allow you to get to know individuals in all walks of life and with different perspectives. You may meet a friend for life or a future job prospect.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
(1) The overall welcoming nature of its people. I have been very blessed with friends and colleagues who have adopted me as part of their families and certainly made my transition in a foreign country seamless.
(2) The opportunities available for those willing to take them and put the effort to achieve their dreams.
(3) Hard work is appreciated, valued, and rewarded.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, it would be a great opportunity to discuss her career path and her perspective as a Hispanic in the legal field.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
At the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm’s website: https://www.fuchsberg.com/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!