LORAIN — The message wasn’t loud and clear, but Carlos Ojeda Jr. heard it.
High school teachers said he would never graduate. Combining humor, passion and a rapid-fire delivery, Ojeda, a hearing-impaired motivational speaker, told Lorain High School students during a Tuesday college fair how he defied expectations.
“I had one teacher who told me I would either die or drop out, but I would never, ever, ever hold a diploma,” Ojeda said. “I believed him because when someone tells you a lie enough times, you start to believe it’s true. You start to play that role. They give you the script, and you play it.”
Ojeda is the president of Cool Speak, a for-profit company that seeks to motivate teenagers to reduce the dropout rate and increase college enrollment. Ojeda, 38, told of witnessing a drug-related murder in his Newark, N.J., neighborhood at 10 years old. His parents responded by moving to Reading, Pa., to provide him a safer environment .
However, Ojeda struggled academically. Cultural differences, his hereditary hearing problem that went undiagnosed until 23, and a wise-guy attitude led him to be labeled a troublemaker by teachers. Ojeda credited tough love from his father and the persistence of a guidance counselor for motivating him to take the SAT.
Before forming Cool Speak in 2009, Ojeda obtained a bachelor’s degree at Bloomsburg University in southeastern Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in business administration from Kutztown University near Philadelphia. Ojeda, the first in his family to go to college, said he was motivated by his father’s admonition to stand up for himself.
“Your voice is your power, and it needs to be heard,” Ojeda said. “I don’t care what script people have given you or what role they try to define for you. Or what they label they put on you, because your voice is your power and that’s all that matters.”
The high school was one of 10 nationally chosen by fast-food giant McDonald’s for the fair, according to Principal Diane Conibear. It featured representatives from 26 colleges and military recruiters. McDonald’s hosted the fair in conjunction with the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that attempts to empower Latinos through education and voter-registration drives.
McDonald’s, which last year had revenue of $27 billion, has donated some $23 million for college scholarships to Latinos since 1985, according to Joe Woods, McDonald’s regional marketing manager for Ohio. The institute has donated about $1.2 million in scholarships since 2003, according to Juan Andrade Jr., institute president.
College tuition and fees increased 300 percent versus the Consumer Price Index between 1990 and 2011, according to Rolling Stone magazine, which cited Moody’s Investor Service statistics. Interest rates on undergraduate loans could rise from about 3.9 percent now to 7.25 percent in 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Nonetheless, Ojeda and other speakers at the fair urged students to not get discouraged and said scholarships are available for those aggressively seeking them.
“Stop telling yourself that you’re not eligible, you don’t have the grades or this or that,” said Ernesto Mejia, Cool Speak vice president. “Let them tell you.”
Junior Aarion Jackson said he was inspired by Ojeda and Mejia.
“I want to try more now,” he said. “It’s never too late to better yourself.”
Ojeda said the honesty and humor in his speeches are designed to connect with students and inspire them.
“We don’t change them. They have to change themselves,” he said. “But we can plant the seeds that’ll be the catalyst for that change.”