UC Merced this week will hold its 10th graduating ceremonies, which will feature at least one homegrown scholar who has worked to help others better themselves through education.
Jennifer Anaya, a member of Merced High’s Class of 2011, will graduate Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in Spanish. She’s headed out soon to the University of Southern California to get her doctorate in urban education policy.
She hopes someday to return to the Central Valley and use her education to benefit low-income students and those who are English-language learners. But she’s already gotten a head start on that.
“I was very aware of what I needed to do to go to college,” the 22-year-old said. “But a lot of my peers, I noticed – they wouldn’t know what to do. They wouldn’t get information.”
She had a plan to change that. About a year ago she was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, money she used to start programs at Merced and El Capitan high schools.
She calls the program Inspiring Great New Ideas Toward Education, or IGNITE, and it works to get English language-learners and low-income students to set their sights on going to college.
About 25 high school students took part in the program this year. Fifteen UC Merced students acted as mentors to the teenagers, who range from freshman to juniors. Faculty and staff from around the university also participate, she said.
Many of the students don’t know anyone who’s been to college, so higher education isn’t on their radar.
Helping those students was a big reason Anaya, who had many options, decided to stay and go to school in the community where she grew up.
“This is a group that deserves to go to (college) and deserves to have that opportunity,” she said.
Those teenagers are also growing up in the shadow of UC Merced, where more than 60 percent of the students are first-generation college attendees.
Her program’s only been around for a year, so there are no statistics yet on its success, but organizers will track students after they graduate.
Anaya’s older sister, Dulcemaria, was an English-language learner at one time. Their parents, Federico and Maria, came to Merced from Mexico 27 years ago.
Dulcemaria Anaya, 25, is also a graduate of UC Merced. She got her bachelor’s in history in 2011. The Anaya family isn’t too different from those of the high-school students in the IGNITE program.
The sisters have three younger brothers. Two are attending UC Merced, and the third is about to finish eighth grade.
“My parents have always been involved in our education,” the older sister said. “I think that’s where it starts.”
She also spoke highly of her little sister, saying she even looks up to her at times. “Jennifer has a huge heart,” her sister said. “She cares about making a difference in the community.”
The sisters also work together in the university’s Calvin E. Bright Success Center, which is home to tutoring, academic advising and other student services. James Barnes, the center’s associate director, said students often want to start programs in the community, but Anaya showed particular drive to overcome the challenges to make it happen.
He went on to say her will to improve the lives of others through education is evident in all of her work. “I can’t say enough good things about her,” he said. “She’s a local student that has just blossomed.”
He also said her success is a testament to her family. “I’ve told lots of people this,” he said. “If we could replicate the Anaya family all across Merced, this town would be unstoppable.”
Merced Matters appears every Monday. In it, we will tell the stories of Mercedians - ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. Contact Dave Hill at email@example.com or (209) 578-2336 with your ideas for Merced Matters.