Frank Vallejos' father told him college would make a difference in life.
Vallejos wasn't fully persuaded. Over three decades, he enrolled a few times -- yet always cycled back into a series of hard-luck jobs and just plain hard times.
But in 2006, several years after Vallejos took in two premature babies -- blind since birth -- he found practical meaning in his father's words.
Now, after years of fits and starts at Fresno City College, Vallejos graduates Friday with a degree in general studies. He's also the dean's medallion winner in social sciences.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Peg Mericle, dean in the social sciences division, said Vallejos' application rose to the top of about 30 candidates.
"What he did for those two babies ... that kind of generosity of spirit is really unusual," she said.
Vallejos, 49, now is the adoptive father of those 6-year-old twins, Heaven and Allen. He plans to pursue a career in social work, inspired partly by those who helped him with the children he couldn't give up.
"I couldn't see those babies going into the system," Vallejos said. "It was obvious to me that they were miracle babies."
Vallejos' college education, too, might count as a small miracle. He never was a dedicated student despite the encouragement of both parents -- and especially his father, Julian, an Air Force veteran.
Just a few weeks into his senior year in 1978 at Hoover High School, Vallejos dropped out to pursue full-time work as a tile-setter. "I thought I was on top of the world," he said. That lasted only until Vallejos broke his leg in a car accident about six months later.
His father persuaded him to enroll with him at Fresno City College. Julian Vallejos finished, but his son dropped out to take a janitorial job with the city.
That became a pattern. Vallejos moved from one back-breaking job to the next -- landscaper, groundskeeper, driller, trench-digger -- and drifted in and out of college for years.
In the late 1980s, Vallejos completed his GED and returned to City College to earn nine certificates in horticulture -- hoping to improve his groundskeeper salary. He became a father of two sons with a girlfriend.
Vallejos ran into trouble in the mid-1990s. Between jobs, and lured by the promise of easy money, he was arrested for transporting drugs and served two years in prison, he said.
"I could just hear my dad's words -- I should have gone to school," he said.
After his release in 1998, Vallejos swept parking lots at night. He returned to City College, but left again when a new job as a driller repeatedly took him out of town.
In 2003, the mother of his boys, Joel and Joseph, called to ask a favor. She was pregnant and in prison, Vallejos said. After her twin babies were born, would he take care of them until her release?
Vallejos and his sons agreed. The twins were born prematurely and weighed less than a pound, he said. They were hospitalized for several months.
Ultimately, their mother couldn't care for them, he said. Vallejos took on the job with the help of his sons and friend Susan Gonzales. He formally adopted the vision-impaired twins in 2008.
Pam Miller, family resource specialist with Fresno's Exceptional Parents Unlimited, worked with the Vallejos family.
"To have already raised a family and to take these two in -- that's amazing," she said.
In 2004, a truck accident ended Vallejos' career as a driller and landed him on workers' compensation. He knew it was time to give college another try in 2006.
For more than a year, Vallejos said, people from various agencies had helped his family. They were his role models for a career in social work.
At City College, he struggled but stayed -- earning a degree last year in social work. He worked at the Disabled Student Programs and Services office -- finding a mentor in instructor Nadine Otschkal, who also returned to school late in life. When budget cuts killed the job, Vallejos volunteered, she said.
"He showed up on the very first day of the semester," Otschkal said. "He said he couldn't leave me alone."
Vallejos said he plans to transfer to Fresno State. His mother, Virginia, is proud, he said. His father died last year before Vallejos finished at City College.
Yet even so, Vallejos said, "He knew that I was doing it this time."