First-generation student-athlete paving the way for others

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Running keeps away the bad habits.

That’s the mantra of history major Alfonso Cisneros, who has made a name for himself on Chico State athletic teams since he joined the cross country program as a walk-on four years ago.

Cisneros grew up in McFarland, California, a rural town of about 12,000 between Fresno and Bakersfield. Like his family, many in the town are immigrant farmworkers, and more often than not, their children grow up to do the same kind of work.

“There’re a lot of first-generation students who don’t have high enough grades and would rather stay in their community [than leave],” he says. But Cisneros wanted something different.

He was headed down a path similar to his cousin—one filled with drugs and vices. He wanted to turn that around, not just for himself, but to be a role model for his two younger brothers.

“I never thought I would make it to college, because I had no one in my family to guide me,” he says. “With running, I saw that I had potential to improve and run in college. That’s when I realized I could go to college and run.”

Fortuitously, McFarland High School has a rich history in the sport of cross country running. (Disney is currently producing a movie about the McFarland cross country program and its retired mentor and coach, Dan White.) While Cisneros was not the best runner on his school’s team, he made up for it by working harder than everybody else.

As his running improved, so did his grades. “When I started getting good grades in my classes, that’s when I noticed that I wasn’t a complete failure,” he recalls.

But even with the improvement, he was still behind in the requirements to be accepted to CSU, Chico, and his running times weren’t quite there.

In another stroke of luck—or perhaps fate—Chico State Cross Country Coach Gary Towne agreed to meet with Cisneros during his stay on campus that summer with the Educational Opportunity Program’s Summer Bridge. McFarland High’s principal had called Towne and made a pitch for him to consider Cisneros for his roster, despite his so-so times.

“After a few minutes of talking with him, I was sold on his story,” Towne says. “I made room for Alfonso as our final incoming walk-on for the fall. I have never regretted this decision.”

Cisneros worked hard as an athlete, and by his sophomore year, he had already made his way onto the team’s conference championship roster. The following year, he won the CCAA championship in the 10K on the track. In cross country as a junior, he finished second in the conference behind teammate Isaac Chavez (a four-time All American), and would go on to finish third overall in the West Region championships. In fall 2013, Cisneros was a part of the Wildcats’ magical 1-6 sweep at the CCAA championships, helping his team to a second regional title. He narrowly missed earning All American at the NCAA championships.

“At first I was almost the last guy on the team, and then the second year I was the eighth man, and then fourth year I was close to the third,” Cisneros says.

He has also held his own in the classroom while mastering English as a second language. Cisneros was able to get away with speaking Spanish in McFarland but was forced to speak English when he came to Chico. “It was like starting a new life from scratch,” he says.

That experience has inspired him to become a teacher and coach: He understands the struggles inherent in being a first-generation immigrant. “Catching up to native students here is really difficult, something that a lot of people take for granted,” he says.

Cisneros will walk this spring and then start the credential program and his final season running in the fall. His achievements here have paved the way not only for his brothers, but other students back in McFarland.

He wants his brothers and others who are struggling to realize that they don’t have to go down a path of drugs and crime, and that through hard work and dedication, they can choose a different life, too.

“Don’t follow everybody else because that’s the easy way to take,” he offers as advice. “Create your own road, and follow your true aspirations.

“It really doesn’t matter how talented you are; if you want it badly enough there’s always something to improve on.”

—Quinn Western, Public Affairs and Publications


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