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Alma Hernandez saw herself in the faces of roughly 200 eighth-grade students from Kermit McKenzie Junior High School students on Friday.

A Guadalupe native, she recalled school was difficult and explained that her often-turbulent childhood (her parents divorced at an early age) made it hard for her to concentrate on the lesson or activity.

"Learning was the last thing on my mind," she told the students. "[My parents] told me school was important, [but] at the time it wasn't what I thought was important."

Now a representative for Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, Hernandez offered students the secret to her success: Find your passion and you will excel.

"I wanted to share that with you because some of you may be going through that right now," she told the crowd. "There's something you were created for and you need to not dismiss that. Every single one of you are here for a purpose."

Speaking to students as part of an annual presentation, Hernandez, McKenzie alumni and other community leaders took time to stress the importance of education and community engagement. The event, sponsored by the Barajas Foundation, provides students the opportunity of witnessing the result of completing their education. The foundation is a nonprofit founded by alumnus and FBI agent Jaime Barajas, with the goal of promoting a positive environment for youth and their families.

"All the speakers have a similar story," said McKenzie Junior High School Principal Gabriel Solorio. "A lot of them have parents who worked in the field. They were persistent, got through college and became professionals."

Now in its fifth year, Solorio called the event a highlight for the eighth-graders. In addition to the panel of speakers, $3,000 in scholarship money was presented to the school and four students received iPad Minis.

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"We really appreciate everything that Barajas [and his foundation] does for our school, students and community," Solorio said. "It's nice to see students get a different look of people who came from the area. It really sends the message to them in a different way."

David Nichols, a project manager for Vernon Edwards Constructors Inc., touted his deep connection to the school district during his presentation. A Kermit McKenzie graduate and son of a Mary Buren Elementary principal, Nichols told the students not to be immediately discouraged if they struggle in school.

"I did three years at Hancock College — you don't have to do it in two — and transferred to Cal State Northridge," he said. "I was interested in construction, building stuff and using my hands. I went in with civil engineering in mind and [ultimately] got a degree in construction management."

As Vernon Edwards project manager, Nichols' experience at McKenzie will come full circle this spring, when he will oversee the $2.3 million construction of an eight-room addition to the campus.

"I'm really excited for that," he said of the project. "I want to tell you guys you can do it. It's not impossible, even though it seems like forever. Don't give up; you'll make it."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.