Taking Charge Through Education

Written by Jimmy Smits for College Outreach USA Students


ach of us, at some point in our lives, is forced to deal with challenge. It would be nice if life were easy, if our futures were certain, and if the road ahead were laid out before us, but this is not the case.

When I was nine, I encountered my first real life challenge. I was uprooted from New York and moved to Puerto Rico. Although we were a bilingual household, I was now forced to speak only Spanish, in school as well as at home. Initially, the change was traumatic, as I lost touch with life in the United States, but the three years I spent in Puerto Rico cemented my cultural ties and shaped my outlook on life. It removed from me the fear of starting something new, as well as the threat of taking chances.

I am a first-generation American. My mother is from Puerto Rico, and my father is from a Dutch colony in South America now known as Suriname. They are not college educated, but they are successful as parents and as people. My parents instilled in me and my two younger sisters that college was a challenge we needed to accept. My two sisters have their own professional careers, and I hold a Masters in Fine Arts from Cornell University.

When I was in high school, my drama teacher, who was doing his graduate work at Brooklyn College, used to take us to plays that he had directed at the college. When I decided to attend college, I entered the City University system of New York since it provided an excellent education and since the tuition was affordable. Both the Theater Arts and Education departments there were strong, and I was able to do many plays under the direction of one of my professors, Bernie Barrows, who was working professionally at the time. It was Bernie who encouraged me to pursue theater and graduate work, particularly since I showed an interest in the classics. His recommendation that I get a strong foundation was emphasized by the work of actors like Raul Julia and James Earl Jones, both of whom were excellent at their craft and both of whom were involved in the Shakespeare festival. Like these men, I was a minority actor who aspired to depth and versatility.

During my first year of college, I encountered a new challenge — fatherhood. What a blessing it was to have a baby daughter, and what havoc fatherhood created with my academic schedule. I would take the earliest possible morning classes, come home to feed and take care of my daughter, work afternoons at a Brooklyn youth development program where I had performed community service work while in high school, and then return to school to work on the plays.

Jimmy Smits on the set of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

I began college as an education major with a theater minor with the intention of eventually teaching speech and theater. My parents were very pleased that they would have a teacher in the family. When I decided that I would go to graduate school, I had, without my parents’ knowledge, already changed my major to theater. They were elated but said, “So, with an M.F.A. you’ll be able to become a college professor!” It’s not that they were negative about the acting profession, but rather that their scope was limited to what they felt was a “secure” future for their son. Even after I graduated from Cornell and they discovered my true intentions, they said, “So, you’ll be able to teach if it doesn’t work out. Right?”

My parents had seen me go through a metamorphosis while I was in graduate school. They were aware that there were times that I had doubts about continuing school. Many of my friends were working in the theater, and I wondered if I should just be “out there” trying to get practical work experience instead of being in a conservatory-type master’s program. Yet, I never quit. I was raised to accept the challenges I had set for myself. Because of graduate school, I have felt well grounded and able to realize my potential as an actor. Graduate school gave me the confidence I needed to be able to fulfill my dream.

A positive attitude is essential in the entertainment industry. An actor, unlike the person who works two or three jobs during the course of his life, constantly auditions for new projects. The business is rife with competition and rejection. . .even for me. . .even now. There are always projects you want to do as an actor that for some reason or other, having nothing to do with your talent, don’t materialize. You might even be rejected because of ethnic prejudice. Whatever the reason for the adversity you face, you must never abandon your aspirations.

Through education, especially higher education, a person becomes well-rounded, particularly in the field of performing arts. Certainly, there are those who become successes, even superstars, and never attend college. However, on a personal level, college and graduate school made me a better actor. Although I want to continue acting, I would like to be able to produce and direct, giving myself more creative control and nurturing projects from their inception. Of course, too, because of my background, I’d like to advance Latino themes and tell positive stories that are accessible to all audiences. My education has prepared me for these tasks and has given me the mettle to persevere.

Today, when I speak in front of youth groups, I advise kids to follow their dreams. I explain that no matter who or what stands in your way, forge ahead. Never look back and be forced to say, “I should have” or “I could have.” If your goal is not realized, at least you know that you have given your all.

I encourage my own children to pursue whatever interests them and to follow their dreams with unwavering passion. You, do the same! Face challenge head on, accept it, and conquer it. The benefit in the end is worth any struggle.

Emmy Award and Golden Globe-winning actor Jimmy Smits has established himself as one of the most versatile actors working in film, television and on the stage. He is one of the few actors who can move effortlessly from television to film to stage and back again. 

After an influential and successful role in the critically acclaimed series NYPD Blue, Mr. Smits returned to television once again in a powerful role on NBC’s The West Wing, playing a Houston congressman who aspires to the White House. 

Mr. Smits has enjoyed an exemplary television career. He received six consecutive Emmy nominations for his role as Victor Sifuentes on L.A. Law (winning the Emmy in 1990) and also five Emmy nominations for his role as Bobby Simone on the Emmy-winning drama NYPD Blue. Additionally, he has three Golden Globe nominations — one of which he won — and four SAG Award nominations. His highly touted departure from NYPD Blue also won the Humanitas Award.

In theater, Mr. Smits was most recently seen on stage in New York Public Theatre’s presentation of Much Ado About Nothing for the 2004 summer season of Shakespeare-in-the-Park. A few months earlier, he starred on Broadway in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Anna in the Tropics. Prior to his recent stagework, Mr. Smits played Senator Bail Organa in Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones and reprised the role in Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith. Mr. Smits can also be seen in George C. Wolfe’s Lackawanna Blues for HBO Films. The story, told from the perspective of Junior, a young boy growing up in 1956, revolves around a rooming house run by Rachel “Nanny” Crosby, who shapes the lives of her boarders as she cares for them. Mr. Smits also starred in New Line Cinema’s Price of Glory. Mr. Smits has involved himself in various charitable organizations over the years and has been a strong advocate for education. In 1997, he co-founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, along with actors Esai Morales, Sonia Braga and Washington attorney Felix Sanchez, to promote Hispanic talent in the performing arts. The program offers graduate scholarships and cash grants at prominent colleges and universities in order to expand career opportunities and increase access for Hispanic artists and professionals while fostering the emergence of new Hispanic talent. Some of the other organizations Mr. Smits is involved with include the New York Public Theatre (for which he also serves on the board of directors), the Fulfillment Fund, United Way, the Police Athletic League, Project Angel Food, and the L.A. Free Clinic.