For many Central Valley students who come from low-income or first-generation households, pursuing higher education and having ample resources available to them might not always be a given. 

Michael Piña (pronouns she/he), who grew up in Kerman, noticed the lack of educational resources and support students from the Central Valley face in comparison to her University of California Berkeley peers. Counselors and teachers in high school did not believe in Piña's chances of graduating, nor pursuing higher education, due to her background, and she realized many of her Central Valley peers were likely experiencing the same thing.

So she created Central Valley Scholars to meet the need and advocate for her peers.

Central Valley Scholars empowers students to realize their potential and capabilities and directly provides the resources, guidance and support in order to make their educational dreams a reality. It also creates a safe space for all students where they are supported, admired, advocated for and respected.

Piña said the program started with workshops, themtors (who assist first-generation, undocumented and Black students from the Central Valley with their college applications) and scholarship opportunities. In its nearly two years, Central Valley Scholars has grown and expanded quickly.

"I wanted to create a space that provided these educational spaces and was inclusive," Piña said. "I never envisioned it as a nonprofit. I started off with what I saw as a need, and I thought I had some experience and resources to pass along to my fellow Central Valley community."

The year-long program helps high school seniors, community college students and other non-traditional G.E.D. school students throughout the entire undergraduate application process. There are workshops available to provide free online webinars on subjects such as the UC applications, Ivy League applications, Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the Dream Act. Themtors also help guide students on various applications and completing all things college-related both correctly and promptly.

Central Valley Scholars also helps students ease into college, answering questions such as what it's like to live with  roommates and what college classes are like, before they step foot on campus, and checks in with them regarding their mental wellbeing.

Cristofer Arellano Acosta (pronouns he/him), a current Central Valley Scholars student from Lamont, wasn't sure what his educational path would look like. Once he applied to the program, he was paired with a themtor who explained different options and encouraged him to pursue his educational dreams.

"When I told them about the schools I wanted to attend, they gave me motivation and really helped me go through the process and helped me to apply," Arellano Acosta said. "I’m really grateful that they saw hope in us."

Arellano Acosta participated in workshops with Berkeley admissions personnel who offered tips on how to write a strong essay and impress them with an application. It helped him immensely in the end — he recently learned he was accepted into the university.

Hearing those success stories is a "beautiful feeling" for Piña. Knowing that so many students face various barriers, being able to create a program that advocates and supports them has been rewarding.

"Just that initial disbelief because you come from a low-income, uneducated family, people immediately label you as unsuccessful. That’s a huge thing done with Central Valley students and those with intersexuality barriers," Piña said. "We’re tapping into the potential that these students always had, showcasing it and making them believe they can achieve it."

To learn more about Central Valley Scholars, visit https://www.centralvalleyscholars.org/

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.