When Torrey Pines High School teacher Don Collins wanted to teach students a lesson in resiliency, he could think of no better instructor than his former student at Sunset High School, Nick Gulino.
Now 25, the same trouble-making kid who was kicked out of his geometry class so many times the principal threatened expulsion, has gone on to intern at the White House, graduate from UC Berkeley with honors and, in the spring, will be among the select few 200 graduates of Yale Law School.
Collins invited teachers to bring students to his Academic Survival classes on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, where Gulino shared his story of transformation in the lecture hall.
“He went from one of the most oppositionally-defiant, troubled and brilliant students I’ve ever had to finishing Yale Law School,” Collins said. “As a teacher I’m impressed with Nick’s ability to articulate how to develop positive habits, the power of tenacity, the value of failures, where to find support and how to develop resilience…His strong sense of himself enables him to not internalize rejection and remain focused and work towards his goals which is fundamental to any pursuit of success and change.
“When no one believed in him, he believed in himself.”
Gulino was born and raised in Encinitas, his parents split up and he lived mostly with his mother. His home life was extremely challenging and he started acting out. He was failing every class by middle school and had a .02 GPA as a freshman at San Dieguito High School Academy.
“How do you get a .02 GPA? I got a D in weight training,” Gulino said.
Gulino said he fell into the wrong crowd of friends and remained undeterred when a close friend he grew up with overdosed and died at age 14.
In his junior year, Gulino transferred to Sunset High School. At 16 years old, he weighed 380 pounds and Collins said people called him “The Viking” due to his giant beard and long hair. He was extremely confrontational and had a very imposing presence, Collins said.
That year, Gulino watched as another friend died of a drug overdose, others dropped out of school completely and one friend got 25 to life for armed robbery.
“That was the year I started to get a little worried about what I was going to be,” Gulino said.
And there was a girl.
Gulino recalls going to a party and meeting a fellow student who was a varsity athlete and college-bound, speaking with him about her aspirations and accomplishments. He had never met anyone like her in his group of friends — “I realized I didn’t want to tell her anything about me and that really bugged me,” he said.
It was the first time that he really took that tough look in the mirror.
In his senior year of high school, Gulino quit smoking, dropping a two pack-a-day habit. He worked harder in school, got more involved in athletics and started paying attention to his diet — while his friends’ behaviors were escalating, he was de-escalating. He lost the menacing beard and cut his hair.
In his senior year Gulino also lost 160 pounds, finished 18 classes and graduated a month early. He said this transformation wasn’t exactly like flipping a switch even though it may seem like it.
“Small changes accumulate,” Gulino said, noting he made tweaks like committing to doing a couple more hours of school work a day and making time to go to the gym. As he said: “Everyone has the same 24 hours, no one’s got more time than you.”
He went to MiraCosta College where he decided to try everything — the opposite of his old stubborn mindset that he could never fail if he didn’t try. After losing one election, he became the president of the associated student government.
From MiraCosta, he transferred to UC Berkeley where he majored in rhetoric and walked on to the football team — he graduated among the top 50 in a class of 25,000, receiving the highest honors.
His senior year he decided he wanted to go to law school and went all in on Yale Law.
“I never quite expected to get a lot of the things I was going for,” Gulino said of his acceptance to Yale Law, his experience as a judicial extern for the Supreme Court of California, executive fellow at the California State Treasurer’s Office and intern at the White House with President Barack Obama.
Gulino said it hasn’t always been easy, citing his “resume of failure” — from MiraCosta he applied to 13 colleges and only got into one, which was Berkeley. He believes many of those denials were due to having to submit his disciplinary record, which he said was 15 single space pages for just his first year and a half of high school at SDA.
“I only needed one yes,” Gulino said. “It was crushing getting rejection after rejection but at the end of the day, if I hadn’t gotten in anywhere I would’ve kept going.”
He estimates he applied for maybe 50 scholarships, earning the ones that allowed him to go to Berkeley and to Yale, on a full-ride scholarship. His first year at Yale, he applied for 16 jobs and got only three offers. But he did not quit.
“Nick works,” Collins told the students. “Want to know why he’s where he’s at? He works. If there’s a job to be done he puts in his best effort. Can you say the same?”
Collins said it has been exciting watching Gulino’s slow transformation as he is a living example of the quote “Your history is not your destiny.”
“I got great feedback from my students,” said math teacher Alexa Scheidler. “I think it was so valuable for students to hear his story and I think they can relate to him in various ways. The thing that stood out to me most was when he said ‘small changes accumulate.’”
Teacher Katie O’Brien was also grateful that her AP art class was able to learn from Gulino’s “inspirational” story.
“His story was not a fairy tale but a real life example of resiliency,” O’Brien. “He also gave great perspective to the students about the big payoff that comes over time from making small positive choices in the short term, listening to your intuition and believing in yourself consistently no matter how much rejection comes our way.”
After the visit, one student emailed Collins to say how Gulino’s message had restored his hope.
“So much has happened in my life and it wasn’t until today that I realized and really looked back at my life and how I can change it,” the sophomore wrote. “I looked at myself as the person that I want to be. Anyway, I would love to just say thank you to Nick for helping me finally accept change and open my mind back to my goals and dreams that were lost for so long.”