In doing research for my new book, Education without Debt, Giving Back and Paying It Forward, I came across several inspirational stories. Young people who came from challenging circumstances and managed to overcome incredible obstacles with the help of financial aid to achieve a college education and personal and career opportunities as a result.
One story was about Jeff Mata, a student who attended California State University at San Marcos. His story was first written by Eric Breier and is reprinted as follows with approval of Eric and Jeff.
Mata never could have predicted just how much the life he was living in his early 20s would change now that he’s 35. “If I still had my eyesight and was still doing the whole drinking thing, I could have totally gone off track, maybe gone to jail or even died,” said Mata, who will graduate from Cal State San Marcos with a bachelor’s in business administration next fall. “Now I have a new life. I’m living a new, healthy lifestyle and really looking forward to the future. I’m seeing the world in a different way, which I think is a better way. At a certain point in my life, I couldn’t see the big picture that I see now. I was going in a different direction, for sure.”
Mata transitioned from a standout wrestler at nearby Poway High School to a fledgling boxer after graduation. When he wasn’t training, he was making a good living in sales. But Mata’s excessive training took a physical toll. He suffered a retinal detachment in his left eye as well as uveitis, an inflammation of the eyeball.
Mata’s vision loss was gradual and he completely lost his sight in 2008. “It was devastating,” he said. “I went into a depression and everything was negative – anything and everything was negative. If there was something positive, I’d find something negative about it.”
Mata said he tried filling the emptiness he felt through drinking and drugs, and the downward cycle continued for four years. “When I lost my eyesight, my independence was stripped away from me,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything for myself. I couldn’t even choose an outfit for the day by myself. That really takes a lot of your dignity away. It’s a humbling experience.”
The turning point came through his Christian faith. Mata attended two rehabilitation programs where he learned how to live and function without his eyesight. At one of the rehab programs, Mata decided to sit in on a Bible study. He started attending church with his parents. He also witnessed the premature death of multiple friends who had lost their eyesight and endured struggles similar to his own. He didn’t want to follow the same path and knew it was time for change.
Getting clean opened up opportunities. Once a finely tuned athlete, Mata gained weight during his depression. While learning living skills in the rehab center, people told him his athletic background would make him an excellent candidate for judo. It took a few years for him to act on the suggestion, but he eventually found a dojo in San Marcos that trains people with visual impairments.
In addition to judo, Mata started competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu against sighted athletes. He has thrived in both disciplines, qualifying for the U.S. visually impaired judo team and competing – and winning – against sighted opponents in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He earned his third gold medal in October at the Sport Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Championships.
Mata’s athletic prowess has earned him a sponsorship with Shoyoroll, a highly regarded manufacturer of the gi garments worn in martial arts. He also has received financial support for training from the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Mata frequently shares the story of his challenges with others. He’s a speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and also speaks at recovery centers and schools. At CSUSM, he serves as a peer leader in the Tukwut Leadership Circle, which helps students build their leadership skills.
“I want to continue sharing the message that there is still hope and purpose in your life regardless of what challenges, disability, or ailment you may have,” he said.
Before losing his sight, Mata never gave a thought to pursuing higher education. Now, he’s a year away from becoming the first in his family to earn a degree. Mata communicates frequently with his professors to ensure that they describe anything that he may not be able to see such as a PowerPoint presentation. Mata said CSUSM’s Office of Disability Support Services has been invaluable in his success, helping him get documents in an accessible format as quickly as possible.
Mata plans to continue his education after receiving his bachelor’s with a Ph.D. being his ultimate goal. He also will continue to stay busy with judo and jiu-jitsu and wants to expand his work as a motivational speaker. He is even looking into writing a book about his journey.
“I just want to continue inspiring and motivating people who may be going through a struggle in their life, who may have lost hope and bring some light into their life,” Mata said. “It only takes a little bit of light to shine through a whole lot of darkness.”
Written by Eric Breier and originally published by the California State University San Marcos News Center December 11, 2017
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