There’s no such thing as a routine day for John Ybarra ’86. Whether he’s patrolling the highways as a CHP officer or volunteering as a tutor at Paso Robles High School, the biology alumnus never knows quite what to expect. But one thing remains constant whether he’s on duty or off—he’s there to help.
As he drives his black-and-white along Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo County, he might soak in the beauty of a sunset over the Pacific or witness the aftermath of an accident. Will he be assisting a grandmother with car trouble or confronting a carjacker? “Everything can change in a minute,” he says.
That’s why he approaches each day with a controlled fear, prepping himself for whatever may lay ahead. “Most people don’t go to work with the mentality, ‘I may not come home today,’” he says. Training and experience temper that fear, and the frequent opportunities to help people give him hope.
If he’s involved with an incident at “quitting” time, a day shift can easily stretch into the night, and vice versa. But throughout the last school year, he has consistently made time on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 11 a.m. to tutor high school seniors as part of the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination). During the study sessions, he may be helping the students with physics, biology, calculus, government, history, or essays.
AVID provides academically rigorous coursework and support to prepare students, particularly the economically disadvantaged, to enroll in colleges and universities—college by design, not by chance. This year’s class racked up acceptances to universities from Humboldt to San Diego.
When he’s short on time, Ybarra sometimes shows up in uniform at the high school. It’s easy to imagine his tough side, which comes out on the streets when needed, when he’s clad in khaki. Yet in conversation, his gentle, caring voice is more Mister Rogers than Clint Eastwood.
Straight out of college, he worked for a pharmaceutical company in Irvine, running quality control lab tests on antibiotics. When the company was sold, he became a chemist at a brewery. Looking to cut his commute time, he took a job closer to home at the Ventura County Sheriff’s crime lab, which led to ride-alongs with CHP officers and, about 12 years ago, an invitation to join the force.
“I probably could have kept at the other jobs and made a career out of them, but there was something missing,” he says. He likes working with people, saving lives, making a difference. “I wouldn’t give it up for a minute.”
About a year ago, he and his wife (who began volunteering at the school before he did) chaperoned the AVID kids on a trip to Europe. He enjoyed the students, and the AVID director convinced him to get more involved with the program. But Ybarra thinks the seeds of his penchant for community service were planted during his years at Santa Clara. He was the first in his family to attend college, though his father instilled in him early on the goal of higher education. Ybarra remembers as a 7-year-old proudly telling his dad that when he grew up, he wanted to work on the assembly line at General Motors, too. “No,” his father insisted. “You’re going to school so you can do better than me.”
While at Santa Clara, he soaked up the Jesuits’ ideals of competence, conscience, and compassion, although he admits with a chuckle, “I didn’t know it at the time.” He hopes that if nothing else, he imparts to the students he tutors the importance of choosing the right path, of making every day count. “Believe in your dreams,” he tells them, “because they can become reality as long as you work toward them.”
— Anne Federwisch