Close to 500 seventh-grade students at Fesler Elementary on Thursday heard about the importance of pursuing a college education or other career opportunities from people who know them best: alumni from Santa Maria public schools.
"Just like you, one day I was in your seats," said Noe Mendez, a former Fesler student and college graduate now employed as a family advocate for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.
Speaking as part of Pathway to Success, a new motivational program designed by district and Early Academic Outreach Program coordinators, Mendez told the crowd he was able to complete college despite facing difficulty throughout high school and college.
"It's OK when you struggle, it's not the end of the world," he said. "You need to work, try harder and find [support]. Don't wait until you get to high school. Don't wait until you get to college. It will help you out now."
Sponsored by the University of California system, the Early Academic Outreach Program provides students at underserved schools with assistance to prepare for college and the workforce, complete college admission requirements and apply for college and financial aid.
"The program was designed to motivate students to focus on their education," said Eunice Gonzalez-Sierra, one of the outreach program coordinators for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. "We hope to instill a drive to pursue higher education and ... let them know that they know they can go to college."
Santa Maria native and El Camino alumna Monique Sandoval, a school resource officer with the Santa Maria Police Department, told the students that she chose to return to the area after graduating from college to give back to her hometown.
"I wanted to make a difference and help influence others who are very similar to me in the community I grew up in," she said. "Having a negative attitude is what will keep you from succeeding. If you have a positive attitude, you truly can succeed."
In addition to the two speakers, students were shown a 15-minute video featuring testimonials and words of encouragement from Fesler alumni. Gonzalez-Sierra stressed the importance of seeing success and achievement in individuals from similar backgrounds.
"They see themselves in them," she said. "We want them to know that students just like them, who were once in their shoes, were able to make it, go to college and pursue a career."