Former At-Risk Teen Finds Success at TMC

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Jose Villalobos knows all about struggle.

His family came to the U.S. when he was 9, with a single blanket their only possession.

As a 10-year-old, he sold paletas, a Mexican popsicle, at the park for 80 cents, keeping 20 cents himself. In his early teens, he would make $17 in exchange for a 12-hour day selling chile ristras.

By his sophomore year at Catalina High Magnet School, in the mid-1990s, he was headed the wrong way, reading at a fourth-grade level and involved with gangs and drugs.

If it wasn’t  for a teacher who wouldn’t give up on him and a mentor from Tucson Medical Center who opened a new world for him, he’s not sure where he’d be today – but it’s all but certain he wouldn’t be a senior systems engineer in TMC’s Information Services department.

In May, Villalobos will not only celebrate his 15th anniversary at TMC, but will be honored as a “Person of the Year” by the Arizona Supreme Court LEARN Center at Catalina. The program, a partnership between Tucson Unified School District and the Arizona Supreme Court, started 25 years ago as a way to increase literacy and technology skills among at-risk students. He is only the third alumni from the program to receive the award.

Marge Christensen Gould, that stubborn teacher from 15 years ago, is still teaching the class at Catalina. Villalobos regularly shares his story as a guest speaker in her classes, she said, serving as a positive role model for her students. Not only is his story inspiring, she said, but the students can relate to him.

This was a smart boy who didn’t make smart choices, she remembered. He hated public speaking. He was always in fights. “He’s really become a remarkable young man,” Gould said. “It’s a teacher’s dream to see that happen.”

Rewind the tape back to that fateful sophomore year when Villalobos first took her class. Despite the waiting list, Gould took him in and helped him bring his reading levels up. By his junior year, he stopped hanging out with his troublemaker friends. Within months, he raised his once-failing grades. More importantly, that was the year he was assigned a mentor.

When he found out he would be paired up with Phil Wagman from TMC, and when he found out Phil was Anglo, he had one reaction: No way. “It wasn’t that I was being racist. I just felt really uncomfortable about stepping outside of my ethnicity and the group of people that I knew. I just felt I didn’t fit in.”

As usual, Gould won. He met Phil. Villalobos started coming to TMC after school three times a week. He was hired on with a summer job in the Information Services department, even though he had never owned a computer and didn’t know the difference between an A drive and a C drive. With some persistence on his part, he was hired on with an after-school job in his senior year. It might have meant skipping out on soccer games with his friends, but he wasn’t about to blow the opportunity, he said.

He said when he graduated in 1998, he was the only one to graduate from the 20 or so kids who used to hang out together and use drugs.

 After graduation, he took a full-time job at TMC, eventually working his way up.

Wagman is heartened by the role he and his whole department played in helping Villalobos grow from a shy, withdrawn student with an interest in graphics, to a confident professional with a good sense of humor.  He said he was “just tickled” when he heard about the award.

For all of his success, Villalobos has one primary regret: Dropping out of college. Now a father of six children, the 31-year-old is back in school, working toward a bachelor’s degree.

When he talks to students, he always tells them not to be intimidated by long-term goals. “I didn’t say I was never going to ditch another day in my life,” Villalobos said. “I tell kids to be better for today.”

Being good today might mean being good tomorrow, and Villalobos tells them one random day can literally affect the rest of their lives. If he hadn’t gone to class, or if Gould had let him stay in his comfort zone, he might not have been paired up with Phil.

He also shares with them the importance of work ethic. He said he can teach anyone to build a computer. What he can’t control is whether that person shows up, on time and ready to learn.

Villalobos will be honored in early May at the Celebrate Literacy Evening, where he will make a few remarks. There’s an anticipated crowd of 400, including students and business partners who participate in the mentoring program.

Not too shabby for the kid who hated public speaking.


  1. Jose is an inspirational leader & will inspire new employees to become exceptional leaders.

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Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Road | Tucson, Arizona 85712 | (520) 327-5461
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