Photo Courtesy of PGLA

A total of 101 students will be recognized today, May 26, at the Skirball Center, for beating the odds. Not only graduating from high school, they are enrolling in college to pursue their dreams.

They are Project GRAD Los Angeles (PGLA) scholars, a select group of young adults who completed a rigorous college readiness program established by that organization that has been helping and pushing low-income students to achieve their academic goals since 1999.

Project GRAD LA seeks to increase the number of first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds by providing early and frequent college awareness information to students and parents and target retention supports for current College Scholars enrolled in college.

First in the Family to Head to College

Among those to be honored is Paul Trujillo, a San Fernando High School senior who will become the first member of his family to attend college.

Trujillo will be awarded a $2,000 scholarship from Project GRAD LA, which offers $500 for every year in college. But aside from the money, Trujillo says the organization was “instrumental” in his academic success.

“They were at my disposal looking to boost my confidence and help me with tutoring after school and when I was having difficulty balancing all my tests,” the 18-year-old Pacoima resident said.

“There are other factors as well. You are assigned a mentor to make sure you are on track to persist and attend college.”

It was through Project GRAD LA that Trujillo said he found his calling. Last summer, Trujillo was part of a research internship at UCLA on the subject of the effects of pain on the brain.

“I enjoyed working on this type of research,” said Trujillo who was awarded a Posse Foundation scholarship that will pay for his college tuition at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. (which he will be visiting this coming week). He will major in neurobiology, with an emphasis on cognitive studies.

“The ultimate goal is the medical field, but I can go on a different way. It all depends on how I end up liking it,” said Trujillo, who has a 4.1 GPA and is a member of the Magnet Program at San Fernando High.

Trujillo admits that he and his parents will have to get used to his being so far away from home.

“They came from Mexico and they invested so much time in us. I always knew how important it was to go to college. I think being on my own will make me a more independent person,” he said.

Getting Her First Choice

Odalis Saucedo had a dream. Make that a dream school.

The 18-year-old Pacoima resident hoped one day to attend UCLA if she had the chance. But she also knew she wanted to attend college, no matter where.

So she threw herself into her classwork at San Fernando High. She will graduate in June with a 4.2 grade point average.

Saucedo applied to UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC San Diego, then checked the mail daily to see where she would be accepted.

To her happiness, UCLA said come on down. She will start there in the fall quarter.

“I worked for it from the heart, and I worked hard. But I think it’s worth it,” said Saucedo, the second of three daughters to Mario and Ines Saucedo and, like Trujillo, is the first in her family to go to college.

“Seeing that you got admitted to the school of your choice is amazing.”

Project GRAD LA had a tremendous impact on Saucedo defining and reaching her goals.

“Project GRAD LA has really helped me grow as a person, not only college-wise but socially too,” she said. “They guided me through the college process and informed me so much. They also gave me great opportunities that helped me stand out in college applications.

“They helped me make new friends through the summer classes and taught me how to cope with problems and my feelings.”

She won’t be going to Westwood empty-handed. UCLA is providing financial aid. Saucedo is also receiving scholarship support from Project GRAD, the California Credit Union, the San Fernando High School Alumni Association, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Saucedo said she plans to study neuroscience.

“I want to be a neuropsychologist and work with people with brain disorders,” Saucedo said. “I did a program last summer where I did research that focused on the brain. I thought it would be a cool thing to go into.

“I may need a medical degree, but I’m not sure. Right now I’m focused on getting my bachelor’s in neuroscience.”

And being a Bruin.

Continuing the Project Grad Legacy

Maria “Hope” Balatan won’t be the the first in her family to attend college. Both her parents did so in her native Philippines. Her sister Sierra attends UC Berkeley, the same school where Balatan is heading this fall when she begins pursuing bioengineering and computer science degrees.

The senior is part of the Magnet program at the school and has a 3.95 GPA.

She said her inspiration comes from living through a typhoon disaster in her home country when she was about 8 years old.

“I want to give back. I could help people with mobility regardless of their injuries in any body parts,” Balatan said.

But her choice of school is not the only thing the San Fernando High senior shares with her older sister.

Both of them are graduates of Project GRAD LA.

“It was the first organization I joined when I moved to the US,” Balatan said. “I was bullied when I moved here because I was quiet. The advisors (at Project GRAD LA) opened a lot of doors for me. I stopped being scared and got my confidence.”

Now the confident 17-year-old is starting college with the idea of helping her community back in the Philippines, and also here in the Valley.

“I’m definitely planning to go back to my community in the Philippines, but living there (permanently) I don’t think so. The US is where I belong now.”

Determined To Make A Difference

Audrey Zhao, 19, got her first look at the United States in 2012 when she emigrated here from Shanghai, China.

You can imagine the culture shock, especially after settling in San Fernando with her parents, Kelly Martin and Qiuping Fang.

But Zhao has been driven to excel in the classroom and, inspired by family circumstances, wanting to make a difference.

The graduating senior from San Fernando High School, who’s compiled a 4.5 grade point average, is headed to UC Berkeley in Northern California this fall where she will pursue a double major in chemical engineering and math.

“Chemical engineering is going to be my career. Math because I like it,” Zhao said.

She remembers how a couple of relatives who worked in manufacturing in China in the 1970s and 1980s, were diagnosed with lung cancer. And how it makes her want to do something to help others.

“I first thought I would go into bio-med engineering, and maybe invent something to help our bodies. But now I want to see if I can create a better process or filter to purify pollution in general,” Zhao said.

“We also face so much waste. I want to see if I can help generate resources or energy from waste.”

Thanks to the help, support and encouragement of Project GRAD. Zhao is well on her way to fulfilling her ambitions.

“As an immigrant who knew little about high school requirement and college, PGLA guided me through the learning process and helped me choose my own path,” Zhao said.

“Each adviser in PGLA is amazing and open to any help. They encouraged me through the four years and will continue to help me in the future as my college adviser. It’s definitely one of the key factors of me achieving my education dream.”

She is getting some financial help to continue her education. Besides a scholarship from Project GRAD LA, Zhao is receiving support from the Gabriel Fernandez Dream Scholarship, The Los Angeles Rotary Club, the San Fernando Alumni Association, and the Andreas y Maria E. Cardenas Family Foundation.

Don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you hear about some breakthrough by Zhao for the betterment of humanity.