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Serving a Higher Calling – Education poster boy won’t quit empowering Latinos

Barrier breaker. Inspirational. Undeniably fearless. At 32, Raul Magdaleno has defied homelessness, prepared speeches for members of Congress and helped raise millions of dollars to shelter and educate others. But this Latino is just getting started — he’s onto a calling that may open doors to the U.S. Secretary of Education seat.

By Coco Salazar

Away from the podiums and cameras usually present in his career as arguably one of today’s most empowering young public speakers, Raul Magdaleno is taking a day off from suits and ties. “Hey, beautiful ladies!” he says, approaching our staff’s table at a café in Dallas wearing black athletic shorts and a red T-shirt distinguished by a white Southern Methodist University logo. With his characteristic enthusiasm and radiant smile, he proceeds to hug us and compliment everyone else he interacts with, from the hosts to the cashier. After adding a dash of happiness to the environment, he sits down to enjoy a chicken salad sandwich and let us in on how his purpose “to serve” is guiding his 2017 goal: graduating as a doctor of education leadership from Harvard University.

“Where am I going to get the money?” Magdaleno asks, thinking aloud about affording his goal. “I don’t know. But I’d rather be broke than living miserable and outside of my purpose.”

Holy snap, crackle, pop! as Magdaleno tends to say. Not only is he comfortable disclosing a projected graduation year when he has yet to apply to Harvard, but his determination to hit the books again comes only six years after graduating SMU while living in an East Dallas shelter — and at a time when his career is in full throttle.

The gutsy Latino recently resigned from a highly desired position he basically created at SMU and is now his own boss. He spends some days as a self-described empowerment (not motivational!) speaker, carrying out his “Don’t Quit” national speaking tour. His focus is empowering audience members, mainly students, to live with purpose and pursue higher education against all odds. He also tours the nation as a spokesman for the Dallas Cowboys and Miller Lite Scoring for Education fundraising initiative and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

That’s not all. When he is in town, you can find him edifying students’ leadership skills through the intensive, community service-focused program of his Magdaleno Leadership Institute. If not, he’s likely working with administrators and teachers at the Irving Independent School District to make it the No. 1 urban school district in the country.

To say the least, Magdaleno is a role model who’s made national headlines for his exemplary leadership, academic excellence and more than 30,000 hours of volunteer work that focused his energy on serving others — rather than dwell in the pain and neglect he suffered growing up poor in an abusive home. His accolades include the U.S. Congressional Award Gold Medal — the highest civilian award given by Congress, 2006 National Hispanic Heritage Month Distinguished Speaker, 2010 MillerCoors National Latino Lider (leader) of the Year and 2011 One Man Dallas.

So how is it that the soft-spoken, humble-in-demeanor Magdaleno has achieved at 32 what many people haven’t in a lifetime yet is set on again sacrificing for university life? Sure, get Magdaleno behind a microphone, and he becomes a powerhouse known for delivering unforgettable speeches packed with tear-jerking, real-life narratives —from the intensive beatings his mother put up with to his anger for her preference of an abusive man over her family’s well-being. His fearlessness in sharing his painful past with millions of people is not easily matched. But, more than talent and ambition, it becomes apparent he is driven by his capacity to submit to something greater than himself. “My spiritual connection is an integral part of who I am,” he says.

Tragedy Turns Destiny

The odds of a successful life stacked against Magdaleno from the start. The youngest of 10, he survived the umbilical cord tied around his neck and was born Mateo Raul Magdaleno in a Mexico City psychiatric hospital, the only place that agreed to attend his single mother despite her lack of means. A year and a half later, the family immigrated to Dallas, in their mother’s hope for a better life and relationship with their estranged father — he died in prison roughly six months later. By the time Magdaleno was 8, he was the reliable caretaker for his disabled, older sister; his mother had remarried an abusive man, his two brothers were in prison and the rest of his siblings had left the household.

Magdaleno experienced a life-defining moment at the age of 10, when his family sought refuge under a bridge in East Dallas. “It was then I knew my life had a purpose,” a teary-eyed Magdaleno says. “I told myself I would build a home for children, so [they] wouldn’t ever, ever have to go through those experiences.” That aspiration began to unfold three years later, when his family fled to a domestic violence shelter, and he started volunteering most of his spare time at the Reconcilation Outreach ministry.

The Rev. Dorothy Moore, RO executive director, believes Magdaleno’s stage presence stems from the clowning he did weekly in front of more than 100 children. “The kids loved him; he knew what their pain was all about,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s easier looking outside of ourselves and helping others, and he did that here. … Raul was a peacemaker.”

Magdaleno went on to be the first high school graduate of his family but avoided college because he didn’t think he was smart enough. Instead, he became the financial provider for his mother and disabled sister. At 19, he had settled on working as a full-time dispatcher and volunteering for a global telecommunications company. The employer took note of and learned that his leadership skills in volunteer-driven company initiatives were mainly the result of thousands of service hours at RO. This connection was instrumental in RO acquiring and renovating crack houses to a 17-unit shelter, including The Refuge — a then-solely domestic violence shelter Magdaleno helped fund.

The wonder boy’s high was stumped by Zulema Martinez, a school district community liaison who continues to be a mentor for Magdaleno but shunned him until he decided to pursue college. She was captivated by his “charisma” and “command” in directing volunteers at a health fair. In learning about his volunteer accomplishments, she told him they would never be the equivalent of a college degree. “He really was shocked,” she said in a phone interview. “He had always been glorified for all his community work.”

Fate was in a mission trip to his family’s native Tepexpan, Mexico; the poverty and hopelessness of children in the region struck Magdaleno. Upon returning, he enrolled at Mountain View College and worked a full-time graveyard shift. “There were times when he’d call me at three in the morning, that he couldn’t take it, that he couldn’t function,” Martinez said. “I pushed him until he realized there was no excuse for me that he could use [to quit].”

A Harvard Magdaleno Building

2004 was life-altering for Magdaleno. After graduating from MVC as valedictorian of the seven schools in the Dallas County Community College District, his academic excellence and community service led to his congressional medal, a press secretary internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a combined $0.5 million in scholarships. The ensuing five-minute, award acceptance speeches he delivered prompted him to refocus his purpose of serving battered women and children, or even becoming a pastor, to helping students realize their purpose and the power of education.

“I’ve been on the receiving end — the receiver of hate, the receiver of abuse — that I would never wish that upon anybody,” he says, with a compassionate look in his eyes. “I hope that … the students I speak with are able to see themselves in me and are able to find their own healing in their lives. And then I have served a purpose.”

Magdaleno could have attended any university in the nation, but it was not time for Harvard. “In my spirit there was something for me to fulfill … at SMU,” he says. “I can’t explain it, I couldn’t say it, there was [just] something.” Five months after receiving his bachelor’s in corporate communications and public affairs, he proposed that SMU build its first diversity and community outreach office. The university just as soon offered him a job to develop the office, and he accepted — one week before he was to start a six-figure job at a financial services firm. “I never want to be able to use my titles and degrees for my self-benefit, but for the greater good.”

Fast forward to 2012, Magdaleno ended a six-year tenure at SMU in August, resigning from his role of special assistant to the dean and as director of the Meadows School of the Arts Diversity and Community Outreach Office. His collaborative efforts resulted in Texas’ first Hispanic Youth Institute at SMU and securing more than $10 million in financial aid that has so far provided full-ride
scholarships to 43 underserved students.

Erik Burgos, a former intern of the diversity outreach office, benefited from those resources. Prior to his community college’s tour visit to SMU, Burgos was convinced the university “was way out of reach.” Magdaleno met the students at the tour’s end and made a lasting impression that changed his perception. “I’ve never met anybody that’s been so excited about meeting a total stranger in my entire life,” Burgos said via phone. “He was a big influence in me getting to SMU and finishing up at SMU.”

“A lot of times we undermine ourselves given all the labels that we have: we’re too young, we’re brown, we’re Latino, we live in a certain zip code,” Burgos added. “I think the most powerful message he’s shared with students is self-sufficiency and letting people know: …You are who you’ve been waiting for. Stop sitting around waiting for superman. You are superman!”

Magdaleno says he is pursuing a doctorate in education leadership to “influence education policy and the direction of education.” To become a viable candidate for Harvard, he is counting on the academic research he is doing at Irving ISD to prove that students who are motivated to find meaning in their lives will exceed academic expectations. With a terminal degree in hand, Magdaleno believes the U.S. president will finally approve what will be his eighth request to become a White House Fellow. As such, Magdaleno would gain experience working in the highest levels of federal government and have lifetime access to the White House. More? Magdaleno also wants naming rights on a particular Harvard building.

“It’s going to be named after me one day…the Harvard Magdaleno [Graduate] School of Education,” Magdaleno says matter-of-factly, looking into the distance before returning his gaze to me. “We’ve gotta claim it … because we need to have more Latinos [who] have names on buildings and programs, so our kids can begin to envision themselves, like: I belong here!”

The ultimate goal for this Latino visionary, however, is to be the U.S. Secretary of Education.

“Education … has residual investment; …if I impact one person, it impacts your life, it impacts the community, it impacts the country and eventually the entire [world],” Magdaleno says. “People need to know the opportunities that are available because education opens doors. … I know that people say it, but I’ve lived it.”

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