From bad luck to bright future


Velazquez at Lucent Technologies’ corporate campus in Holmdel, N.J.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Edain Velazquez (EAS’00) is only 21 years old and yet his life has already had more twists and turns, deeper sorrows, greater success, than you can find in a Dickens novel.

A mysterious birth, poverty, a catastrophic gunshot wound, a guardian angel with a life-changing gift, a journey cross-country to a private, privileged world. An Ivy League degree.

“I seem to be this boat that goes with the current — but then fights against it,” he said recently. He was talking on the phone from his new job with Lucent Technologies in Holmdel, N.J., a few days before graduating from Penn with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He will obtain his master’s from Penn in the same field next year.

“My father and I — actually my entire family — we’re really close,” he said. “My father is the only person I really trust. ... We actually trust each other enough to confess our deepest secrets.”

One of those secrets Velazquez did not learn until he was 18: He had been adopted when he was an infant.

Many teenagers might build a world of drama and fantasy around such a revelation. But by the time he learned of his mysterious birth to a Navajo woman, and her subsequent disappearance, Velazquez’s life was already eventful enough.

A month after he was born in California, Velazquez’s family returned to Mexico, where his adoptive parents were citizens. They lived there until he was 12. Then his parents came back to the United States, moving into an East Los Angeles barrio, because they believed that their three sons — Edain and Efrain and Efren — all could forge a better future here.

Velazquez’s father, who had been a plastic surgeon in Mexico, became a nurse’s assistant; his mother, trained as a nurse, took a job in a factory: “My parents sacrificed their careers to give us a better chance,” Velazquez said.

But two years later, while playing tennis with his brothers across the street from his house, Velazquez was shot in the face in a drive-by shooting.

“The first thing I thought, ‘It’s a tennis ball.’ Then I realized my hand had blood on it,” he said. The bullet shot out his left eye, paralyzing the left side of his face.

That was in the summer when Velazquez was between junior high and high school. He had been applying to private schools, desperate to get away from East L.A., but his PSAT scores were low, and he had no luck. And so he returned to public school that fall.

But the following year, his junior high school counselor, James Person, who had been tracking his progress, obtained a berth for Velazquez at Phillips Academy in Exeter, Mass. — a school where personal safety is a given and where class-size is limited to nine.

“It was just very intimidating, but those folks out there were just really nice. Really friendly,” he said.

Velazquez was introduced to Penn through its summer school program when he was in 11th grade. He worked three jobs each semester during his first three years at the University: in dining services at Hill House, as a receptionist at Kings Court English House, and in the undergraduate electrical engineering lab.

Velazquez has attended Penn on a financial-aid scholarship and small loans — about $2,000 a year. He emphasized that his school aid was not based on academic performance. “I don’t think I’m that bright,” he said.

He’d like to return to California to be near his family, but when Velazquez was offered the Lucent job, he took it immediately.

“If I didn’t accept the offer, I knew I would be throwing away a great opportunity,” he said.

Originally published on June 1, 2000