Twice a month, Maria Mendoza and her fellow volunteers start their day at 5:45 a.m. They pile into vans and drive 200 miles to mentor high school students.
The group arrives in the Central Valley around 10 a.m., ready to engage the students in workshops about topics such as drug abuse, political debates or college planning.
Mendoza is the founding member of the Central Valley Project, a mentorship program for high school students.
“When I came to UCLA, I knew I wanted to find a way to give back to the Central Valley community where I grew up,” said Mendoza, a former sociology and Chicana/o studies student who graduated from UCLA last quarter.
She recently won the Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award for her work in the Project. The $1,000 award is given annually to select UCLA students involved in community service to give to a public service organization of the recipients’ choice.
Charles E. Young, a UCLA chancellor from 1968-1997 and the award’s namesake, said the award represents the commitment students have to benefiting their community.
“I think (the award) will form a habit (of service) that will stay with (students) for the rest of their lives,” Young said.
The Central Valley Project does not provide tutoring for the high school students. Instead, it focuses on teaching the students about community engagement, sex education, and planning for future education and employment. Across sites in the Central Valley, project members mentor about 40 students overall.
Mendoza said two of the high school seniors she helped with college applications will attend UCLA in the fall.
Fabiola Figueroa, one of the students who will go to UCLA next year, said the Project has opened her eyes to the problems facing her community.
“Maria has taught me to always give back. She is my role model; she is from my town, she went to UCLA and now she is a successful woman, so I want to be like her,” Figueroa said.
Mendoza said she intends to use the money from the Humanitarian Award to start a scholarship fund for the students involved in the project.
“We want to motivate students to aim for higher education,” she said.