I love the multi-cultural vibe of central Santa Ana where I grew up, and yet it’s sometimes a little hard to reconcile the hardships in the neighborhood I was raised in with the refined setting of a concert hall.

But here I am.    

I would be lying to you if I said the journey from my earliest music lessons through KidWorks to a university concert stage was a storybook. It wasn’t.

I guess you could say that I was a bit of a star student in my teen years attending Avanti Music, a KidWorks program founded in 2012 by professional musician Joe Cristina, who led the program until 2020.

But at Berkeley, I met other student musicians whom I viewed as geniuses and prodigies. As the first in my family to pursue higher education after graduating high school, I often felt quite out of place as a person of color at a school where I rarely encountered another person of Hispanic heritage.

It took a few years, but I finally regained my confidence as a musician. I also knew that the importance of being a leader that KidWorks’ taught me meant that I had to turn my feelings of being an outsider into positive action.

After all, my lifelong motto is: “Whatever I have right now, I am going to work with that.  Whatever I do now will determine my steps for the future for tomorrow. I can’t dread the ‘what ifs’; I can’t overthink the future. Focus on the right now.”

That’s when I decided to approach leaders in the Berkeley music department about teaching a course about Mariachi music.

I wrote a proposal and developed a course syllabus.  My idea was accepted and I’ve now taught the course for two semesters. We cover the history of the music, discuss its fusion with some many other music formats and play songs together. About 15 students enroll in each class and they earn course credits.

I am also co-President of Mariachi Luz de Oro at Berkeley, a student-run club dedicated to playing regional Mexican music.

This wasn’t my first time serving as an instructor. During my senior year in high school, I taught violin at KidWorks to 12 to 15-year-olds. We covered music theory, notes, rhythm and how to hold a violin.

KidWorks was also instrumental, along with others, in helping me secure a month-long music internship during the winter of my high school sophomore term, working with young children in Jamaica. I introduced my students to music theory, drumming and the flute. As a Latina, I saw myself in those kids; they grew up in a low-income environment, just like me.

Being a teacher makes me think back to the wonderful teachers, staff and volunteers I met while attending KidWorks. I cherish these relationships.

I first enrolled in KidWorks’ programs when I was 13 years old. I’ve also volunteered, helping with set-up and clean-up at various KidWorks events and even shared my story with the audience at several of them.

Today, my sister, Nadia, is a high school freshman who attends KidWorks. My mom, Juvelia, and dad, Arnoldo, have been such positive influences on both of us.

While I consider myself a person with tremendous drive and independence, I’m also humble enough to acknowledge that KidWorks played a very big role in my acceptance at Berkeley. They helped me fill out all the application forms, guided me with essays and gave me a nudge when I needed it.

A big motivator was when I attended KidWorks’ Campus Crash event. It provides high school students a firsthand taste of college and university life through campus visits, with the goal that we pursue higher education.  

Once I arrived at Berkeley, the KidWorks team surrounded me with love and support in ways that really overwhelm me with gratitude. They regularly checked on me. They were there as a shoulder to cry on when I was overwhelmed managing a dual major, lots of coursework and a parttime job. They sent me care packages with snacks and personal care items. They mailed cards on my birthday and sent uplifting text messages.

My plan as of right now is to attend graduate school after earning my bachelor’s degree at Berkeley. After that, I may join or form a professional music group, return to teach music in Santa Ana and/or eventually start a non-profit for people of color who want to pursue a career in the arts.

Not that many years ago, I was practicing violin with other students in a small room at the KidWorks’ Dan Donahue Center while moms busily organized the snacks for students attending after school programs. Whenever I sit on a concert stage before a live audience of hundreds, I always take time to think back about moments like that. I’m forever in awe of the staff, volunteers and supporters who helped make my often-difficult journey so much smoother.

(Editor’s Note: Julie Cons is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley who first enrolled in KidWorks’ at 13-years-old. We are very proud of all she has accomplished so far—despite some roadblocks. She is pursuing a double major in music and molecular cell biology. We asked her to share about her journey. This is Julie’s story, in her words.)