May 18, 2014

Merced matters: UC Merced grad learned to motivate herself, others

Merlyn Perez had a tough road on her way to graduation. She didn’t learn to read until she was 10, and faced ridicule from other students and even some cousins. She graduated Sunday, and, at least for the near future, she’s not going back home to southern California but staying in Merced.

City leaders often talk about “brain drain,” in which the best and brightest leave the community once they’ve earned their degree, but, at least for the near future, one graduate plans to call Merced home.

That’s good news to the ears of anyone who knows Merlyn Perez, because she’s spent countless hours volunteering at junior high schools around Merced County.

She graduated from UC Merced on Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in Spanish. But it’s been a long road for Perez, who didn’t learn to read or write until she was 10.

“My self-esteem was really low,” Perez said. “I was having problems not only believing in myself but believing I couldn’t get out of the rut.”

Struggles such as that led her to volunteer with Merced County Project 10%, an effort to raise the high school graduation rate in the county. She had been in the shoes of some of the children she met.

Perez, 22, walked in those shoes in Reseda, where she was raised in a single-parent home by her Honduran mother, Glenda Vilchez, who had only been in the United States since 1984.

“Like every immigrant story, she just wanted a better life for her kids,” Perez said of her mother.

There wasn’t a lot of money to go around, she said. Her mother was working two and three jobs while pregnant with Perez. The job total jumped up to four or five after she was born.

“Nobody in my family thought of academics as anything,” she said. “So, when I started school, I fell behind.”

She repeated the second grade twice, which meant her little sister caught up to her – an embarrassing situation for any youngster. Perez said she was able to keep it a secret for a while, but it eventually came out.

She found out how cruel children can be.

“They started calling me dumb, started saying my life isn’t worth living,” she said.

Once she approached middle school, Perez decided that she had enough. It was huge risk, she said, but she worked out a deal with the school’s administrators – if she could keep her grades at Cs or better, she could skip the sixth grade.

From that point on, all her free time was spent studying.

It took some time, but she learned she was good at it and found the motivation.

“I’m doing this for my family,” she said, recalling what she was thinking. “I want them to believe that they can do the same thing as me.”

She managed to keep up her end of the bargain. Her next stop, Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys, was no picnic for her either. But Rochelle Kronstadt, Perez’s college counselor, said the then-high school senior had blossomed into “a dynamo.”

All that time spent learning how to study had helped give her a new work ethic.

“She impressed me so much with her character and her work ethic,” Kronstadt said. “You could ask her to do anything.”

The counselor said Perez, when home from UC Merced, also used her time to counsel high-schoolers on the college process.

Motivating Merced’s next generation of college students became her next feat.

Perez played a major role as a leader in the second wave of volunteers for Merced County Project 10%, which began in 2011, said Vernette Doty, associate director of student life for UC Merced.

In the program, college students share their stories of making a decision to finish school despite the struggles – gangs, drugs or other distractions around them.

Perez was in charge of organizing the meetings with schools across the county, as well as sharing her story of struggle with the youngsters.

“She’s very committed, and specifically to Project 10%,” Doty said. “But, overall, she’s committed to the idea of empowering people to succeed.”

The UC Merced graduate was dependable and played the role of motivator for the other college volunteers in Project 10%, Doty said.

Now college graduation has come and gone for Perez.

It’s common for UC Merced students is to skip town once they’ve attained their degree. Perez said she has aspirations for a law degree, but for now, Merced is her home.

It took some getting used to.

She said she remembers her first visit to UC Merced as a high school senior. All of Merced’s wide-open spaces are quite different from Reseda, which is just west of Burbank.

“When I first moved here, I was sleeping in the dorms,” she said. “I couldn’t go to sleep because it was so quiet.”

Perez said she was used to hearing sirens, cats in alleys and all sorts of noises throughout the night. It wasn’t long after that she warmed up to Merced.

What’s next? What else but another struggle – the Merced job search begins.

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