A dearth of scholarships and resource opportunities for people of color, LGBTQIA and other marginalized populations motivates a native of Fresno County to help those in the Central Valley pursue higher education.
Typically, scholarships are based on students’ academic performance and their participation in extracurricular activities. Michael PiÃ±a said institutions should rethink their approach to be more inclusive. That’s why he started his nonprofit, Central Valley Scholars, to give those who might normally be overlooked for scholarships a chance.
PiÃ±a’s efforts are rooted in his upbringing in Kerman, where he lived with a poor immigrant family, sleeping in the living room with his family to escape car shootings. Terrible comments at various times in high school by a scholarship counselor and interviewer made him doubt who he was and his potential.
But when the A-level student was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, he realized how difficult his journey was compared to his other more privileged peers and how much he wanted inclusion in the Higher Education.
So in 2019, while a sophomore at university, PiÃ±a started a pilot program with a mission to do just that.
“My goal is to get students where they want to be,” said the 22-year-old.
One of this year’s Central Valley Scholars, Juan Carlos Mosqueda Rosales, shared with The Bee his college journey as a first-generation undocumented student. More information on his stories and those of PiÃ±a later.
The organization offers more than scholarships
Central Valley Scholars offers a variety of workshops and training throughout the year with a focus on college applications, financial aid, school transfer, mental health, and queer and transgender advocacy. At this time, these services are only offered on Zoom, but the organization will eventually host in-person sessions across the valley.
The organization also offers three programs, one being the Themtorship program, which provides first generation, undocumented and black students with one-on-one preparatory orientation and mentorship by a current or former student for 10 months. Black students can also apply for the Black Empowerment Program, a space where they can learn more about themselves, network, and express who they are through art and culture.
Those interested in learning more about health, research and engagement can apply to become a Community Health Fellow, a six-week summer program where participants, guided by an educator, can conduct local research to better understand the health problem that interests them and propose a local project.
Community Health Fellows and Black Empowerment recipients will receive $ 100 for their participation, and the finalist for the latter program will receive $ 1,000.
Central Valley Scholars also offers six types of identity-based rewards totaling $ 12,000. There are prizes for undocumented students, in the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual), first generation, or mentally and / or physically disabled community. There are two awards for black students.
One of the recipients will also be registered to receive the Inspire Prize, offering the nominee an additional $ 3,000.
Education provides motivation
PiÃ±a said he wanted to escape the reality around him, especially the mistreatment he faced while growing up as a gay individual in the valley.
He knew university would be the answer. But he said when he sought advice from his counselor at Kerman High School, the man made it clear that he did not believe in PiÃ±a.
“In my face he looked at me and said, ‘You will never go to college, so save time and money’,” he told his advisor in PiÃ±a. , who was a heterosexual college student and a sophomore at the time.
For a moment PiÃ±a doubted himself. He said the experience taught him to develop thick skin and not always take people’s words as the truth.
Another barrier to obtaining a college degree was his economic background. PiÃ±a said that when trying to apply for scholarships he wanted to be genuine and talk about the challenges of being gay in the valley.
But he said a scholarship interviewer told him his circumstances, like his environment, his family’s immigration status and finances, were not the issue. Being homosexual was the root of all his problems, PiÃ±a was told.
Nonetheless, PiÃ±a, who graduated from high school as a major in her class of about 300 students in 2017, was accepted to UC Berkeley. There, he received the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, a grant of at least $ 12,570 given to students with family incomes of less than $ 80,000 per year. He was also able to receive financial aid and qualify for other scholarships and graduated debt free in May.
Letters of recommendation and a track record of academic excellence can be a challenge for marginalized people applying to college, who may not have the connections, or who face underlying issues that make them successful. much more difficult, said PiÃ±a. But those who have the will to keep moving forward in the face of obstacles deserve a helping hand, he said.
âWe never reward or support studentsâ¦ when they need it most, when they are still struggling to get through that journey,â said PiÃ±a.
Non-traditional student rewarded
Mosqueda Rosales, winner of this year’s Inspire Prize, said he never thought someone like him would be selected. Large scholarships are typically awarded to students, especially those in large cities, who have access to opportunities to showcase their talents, strengths and leadership skills, the 26-year-old said.
But living in the small town of Orosi in Tulare County, Mosqueda Rosales said such opportunities are limited, and in some cases non-existent.
âI have very little to promote myself,â he said.
As a first-generation student, college is a challenge as there isn’t much advice on how to get there and what to do next, Mosqueda Rosales said. Although he earned three associate’s degrees, he said he felt frustrated and late in life because his high school peers got their bachelor’s degrees and some went on to graduate school.
âI need some adviceâ¦ I need a place to look, to understand what can be done with an education,â he said. âIt has really been a struggle. “
Although Mosqueda Rosales does his best to find his way, the undocumented individual said he feels a heaviness in his heart and struggles with his identity as imported books, food and art no longer fill the gap. void of Mexico and its culture. And as life continues to unfold and society says to keep pace, he said he feels groundless, like he’s in freefall.
â(Undocumented students) don’t really have any backup options, so it’s really fair to keep moving forward,â he said.
With the scholarship, Mosqueda Rosales said, he was able to pay his tuition in Fresno State, where he studies urban and land use planning and is one of the few Latinos to take his classes for his major. He adds that he was also able to buy his first laptop, so he no longer has to share with his two siblings.
Despite the obstacles he faces and those he expects to face in the future, he said he believes education may be the only way for him to ever return to his country.