Success Stories

Picture of Fabiola for her success story

Fabiola Moreno Ruelas

During her junior and senior years at Gonzales High School, Fabiola Moreno Ruelas wanted to go to college. She just didn’t think she would make it.

Ruelas worried about how she would pay for college, and didn’t know if she was prepared. Her family had experienced their share of hardship. She saw her father deported, and her family routinely struggled with housing and basic needs. Nor had anyone else in her family attended college.

“The only stories I heard were of fellow students who had come home, had failed, got on academic probation. I really wanted to go to college, but I never thought I’d make it through,” Ruelas said.

Now a college sophomore at San Diego State University, Ruelas is confident that she is going to succeed. Not only that, she’s committed to helping other students in her community do the same.

Using funds she received from a car accident settlement, Ruelas launched a scholarship fund for Gonzales High School students. She gave four $500 scholarships in 2019 and is planning to make new awards in 2020. She is also hoping to launch an alumni network program in Spring 2020 to connect high school students in her community with college students who can help answer questions, provide motivation/support and encourage them to apply.

Ruelas was inspired to launch her scholarship fund by the generous college scholarships she received from others in Gonzales, a town that isn’t necessarily wealthy but has a strong culture of supporting its students. She also wishes she had someone she could have talked to who was succeeding in college during her years of self doubt and worry - and wants to provide that for other students in her community.

Ruelas gives credit to UC Santa Cruz’s Educational Partnership Center GEAR UP program for helping her get into college.

“The trips I took with GEAR UP were the only reason I stepped out of Monterey Bay and got a chance to see what else is out there. I wouldn’t have known what else there is, that there is another world out there. The first trip we took was to Hartnell College [in Salinas]. It’s only 20 minutes away [from Gonazales] but I had never been there.”

GEAR UP really made an impact for Ruelas in her junior year. Ruelas said that GEAR UP reinforced the idea that college is for everybody. “I started to think that maybe I could do college!” she says.

In her senior year, Ruelas decided that she definitely wanted to pursue college. GEAR UP helped her fill out applications, made sure she took her SAT/ACT tests, and ensured that she had all the necessary information she needed.

“We would go into the [GEAR UP] room and work on applications. The staff were so great, giving us mentorship and support,” she says.

Ruelas isn’t sure what would have happened if she hadn’t been a part of GEAR UP. “I don’t want any student to wait until it’s too late to realize they can go to college,” she said. “I want students to have the notion they can go, even in middle school.”

Ruelas wants other students to know that they can make it to and through college.” She started the Ruelas Scholarship Foundation and is launching the alumni network “to help them know that there’s more out there and give them the support and information they need to step out.”

Ruelas’ scholarship fund has received national attention with articles published in newspapers across California and even in Florida. KSBW featured her scholarship awards on a recent newscast.

She’s used the notoriety to raise even more money for the Ruelas Scholarship Foundation, raising more than $2,000 in funds from her local connections and receiving $5,000 from an organization in Oxnard. The Ruelas Scholarship Foundation has now grown to more than $11,000.

“I’m excited that it’s grown so much,” she says. “I want to reach more students in California and keep impacting. I want to spread the word that college is possible.”

The Educational Partnership Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz increases access to higher education for underrepresented students across the Monterey Bay, Pajaro Valley, and Silicon Valley. The EPC is a part of the Undergraduate Education division at UC Santa Cruz and serves students and their families who face significant barriers to college-going, such as being low-income, the first generation in their families to go to college, and those whose primary language is other than English. The EPC relies upon generous community support in order to offer ten programs that together help more than 11,200 students each year reach and succeed in college.

“I am truly inspired by Fabiola’s story,” says Maria Rocha Ruiz, Executive Director of the Educational Partnership Center at UC Santa Cruz. “Fabiola embodies the mission of the EPC with her passion for making college dreams a reality for students in her community. I couldn’t be more proud of what she is doing, and that EPC was part of her pathway.”

“The Educational Partnership Center is making a phenomenal difference in the lives of students by creating a pipeline to higher education” says Richard Hughey, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education (UE). “It’s a natural fit for the EPC to be a part of UE. When I hear stories such as Fabiola’s, I am reminded of how supporting the EPC creates opportunities for underrepresented students to access college and succeed once there.”

Beatriz Collazo
profile by J.D. Hillard

On Beatriz Collazo’s path to a career as a medical device engineer, two EPC programs - MESA and GIE - were important steps.

As a student who liked math, she wasn’t sure what her future might be like. The science, math, and engineering careers she saw around her hometown of Watsonville were in teaching and agriculture.

Her school, Lakeside Middle School in Watsonville, has a Math, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program. This statewide program involves regular activities in math, engineering, and science led by teachers at participating schools. In 8th grade, Beatriz discovered the weekly exploration of science and technology and dove in.

At the annual UC Santa Cruz MESA Day competition, students from around the Monterey Bay area compete various engineering tasks — Beatriz’s first MESA day project was a bridge made of balsa and manilla paper.

“It’s about bringing engineering fundamentals at the lower levels,” Beatriz says. “Students create projects that mimic problems in the real world.”

That same year, her MESA leader told her about the Girls in Engineering (GIE) summer program, which was about to hold its first session. GIE is a week-long day camp on the UC Santa Cruz campus with hands-on robotics projects, field trips, and opportunities to visit labs on the UC Santa Cruz campus

“I still have that robot [that she built during GIE],” Beatriz says.

She continued participating for several years. Her exposure to various paths in the field of engineering and to a college campus were valuable components of how Collazo chose her route, which included a Stanford degree and her current role designing specialized implants for heart patients.

“All my friends who were in MESA went into science fields,” she says. “It just showed us that there are more opportunities and encouraged us to pursue college opportunities.”

Collazo still returns to MESA as a volunteer judge for MESA Day.

Lily Skeel
profile by J.D. Hillard

As a MESA student, Lily Skeel built a model heart. Now she’s in med school.

Lily participated in the Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) program for seven years. She also attended the Girls in Engineering (GIE) program at UC Santa Cruz. The programs augmented her middle and high school curriculum with deep dives into math and technology.

She always looked forward to the annual MESA Day, which brings MESA programs throughout the Monterey Bay area to UC Santa Cruz to compete on engineering projects. Her team placed multiple times.

The year she made a model heart was formative.

“It was the first time I truly understood how the heart works,” she says. “It was when my fascination for the human body began.”

The problem solving and intensive effort to complete projects on deadline were preparation for the career she would choose.

“I still use those skills from MESA as a medical student.”

Pursuing medicine is empowering for Skeel. Several of her relatives have diabetes, a diagnosis with potential for severe foot problems. Lily has become a foot and ankle specialist.

“Seeing female role models succeeding in the field meant I never questioned my abilities,” Lily says. “It built up my confidence to take on and complete projects successfully.”

What I suggest to current San José Cal-SOAP students
is that while making it TO college is a great accomplishment and you should cherish it, it is earning your degree and fighting through the obstacles that really matters. Don't quit on your dreams, enjoy the ride, and smile at those who will doubt you".

Picture of Elsie for her success story

Elsie Carrillo | James Lick High School Alumni, Class of 2009

"San José San José Cal-SOAP gave me one-on-one help with filling out college applications, scholarships, and the FAFSA. They also helped me with completing waivers for college applications and registering for the SAT. Finally, their help in planning and editing my personal statement was an integral part of my academic success. A San José Cal-SOAP event that benefited me to my success was the personal statement writing workshop the most. It provided me with helpful tips and tricks to convey my story to prospective colleges in a concise and convincing manner. I attended UC Berkeley for my undergraduate studies and graduated in 2013 where I double-majored in Marine Science and Integrative Biology. Later I went on to Stanford University for graduate school and graduated in 2016 with a degree in Education and Secondary Science Teaching Credential.

What I suggest to current San José San José Cal-SOAP students
is to write a draft of your personal statement early so you have plenty of time to edit and refine. This is your opportunity to share what sets you apart from other applicants. Consider that you are more welcome when you can bring something to the table. What unique experiences do you bring that adds diversity to their college? Also, apply to scholarships! Money should not be an issue - there is always a way! Whether it is the Incentive Awards Program Scholarship, the Gates Millennium Scholarship or another full-tuition scholarship, make sure you set aside the time to apply. Better to spend your time writing now then working through college later."

Picture of carmen for her success story

Carmen Estrada | James Lick High School Alumni, Class of 2011

"San José Cal-SOAP was the reason I was able to apply to college. I always knew I wanted to go to college, but I had no idea where to apply or what tests to take. They helped me each step of the way from applying for financial aid, signing up for college entrance exams, and submitting college applications. A San José Cal-SOAP event that has benefited to my success was Cash for College. It made the greatest financial impact when I was applying to college because thanks to their help with my FAFSA application I was able to attend SJSU (San José State University) without paying one single cent out of my own pocket. Yup, I went to college for FFFRRREEEEEEE! Without this event I would have been lost and would have struggled to pay for college. Other great events included admissions possible, SAT/ACT drives; personal statement workshops, college fairs, and I could go on forever! Every single event helped me in one way or another and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities that San José Cal-SOAP provided me with. I am now a college graduate that will be applying to medical school and I am 1000% sure I would not be here without the help of San José Cal-SOAP. I have recently graduated from San José State University, May 2016 where I got my degree in Biology with a Concentration in Systems Physiology and a Minor in Chemistry.

What I suggest to current San José Cal-SOAP students is to take advantage of all the resources that San José Cal-SOAP provides you with; apply to all the scholarships and summer programs that they advertise. You won't regret it! Work now and have the time of your life in college without as much debt as everyone else because you took the initiative to work hard in high school!"

Picture of Rafael for his success story

Rafael Flores | San José High School Alumni

"San José Cal-SOAP not only enabled me to fulfill my dreams, but it also awarded me with a great network of friends, professionals, and resources to rely upon. All pre-college workshops that San José Cal-SOAP hosted benefited towards my success. I attended UC Davis for my undergraduate studies where I majored in Managerial Economics. Later I went on to UC Berkeley for graduate school and received my degree in Business.

What I suggest to current San José Cal-SOAP students is that while making it TO college is a great accomplishment and you should cherish it, it is earning your degree and fighting through the obstacles that really matters. Don't quit on your dreams, enjoy the ride, and smile at those who will doubt you".

Picture of Marilyn for her success story

Marilyn Nguyen | Andrew P. High School Alumni

"San José Cal-SOAP was my biggest resource in high school during the application cycle. Coming from a low-income, first generation family, learning how to independently navigate the educational system was really difficult. I remember feeling really overwhelmed with all the requirements, the different college choices, potential majors, tests I needed to take, FAFSA, etc. It gets overwhelming! It seems silly in retrospect, but I didn't think I would be able to get in anywhere, and that fear of failure was a discouraging factor of applying. I procrastinated on all of my applications because of this fear. San José Cal-SOAP really helped facilitate the process of applying. They consolidated all the information for me, so I knew that I was on track. They re-read and helped edit my personal statement. They gave me a scholarship to help alleviate the financial burden of my first quarter in college (that helped a lot! Thank you!). But I think the most valuable thing I gained from being a part of the program was the encouragement to keep on going, despite those fears. I am where I am today because of that support. A San José Cal-SOAP event that benefited me to my success was attending one-on-one advising sessions that helped me with FAFSA and my personal statement. After receiving my scholarship, they also kept in contact with me to ensure I was keeping up with my schoolwork in college. I really appreciated all of the support. College was hard enough, but to do it without parental support was really stressful.

I attended UCLA for my undergraduate studies and graduated in 2014 where I majored in Biochemistry. Now, I am in dental school at the University of the Pacific, Dugoni School of Dentistry for my DDS, and will have my doctorate within 3 years!

What I suggest to current San José Cal-SOAP students I know this is to not be afraid to fail! There is a large difference between failing and failure, and those who are the most successful fail the most often. You really do not know what you are able to accomplish if you allow fear to get in the way. You learn so much in positions where you are the most uncomfortable. Whenever you doubt yourself, be comforted in knowing that someone else has been in your shoes and has been able to do it. You can too! Just do it. And if you're afraid, do it anyways."

Gonzales High graduates featured along Central Park, hope to inspire generations to come

Ayrton Ostly, Salinas Californian, August 14, 2019

What started as a conversation in passing between Candice McFarland and a college advocate (EPC’s Alberto Cortes-Perez) at Gonzales High has now become a new community tradition.

“The hope was to inspire students to seek out something beyond Gonzales and celebrating their accomplishments,” McFarland, Director of College and Career Readiness at Gonzales Unified School District (GUSD).

The new tradition? Banners in Gonzales’ Central Park prominently featuring recent Spartan graduates.

The banners include graduates either holding pennants or wearing sweatshirts from their future colleges such as California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), San Luis Obispo; California State University, Chico; California State University, San Jose; University of California, Davis and California Lutheran University.

Photos of the banners posted by the Gonzales Athletics Twitter account quickly spread with positive responses to the effort by GUSD and the city, with some hoping that it inspires other districts and praising how Gonzales supports its youth.

McFarland, following the conversation with that college advocate, reached out to the city for help with the project.

“It was an idea in early fall that really stuck with me,” she said. “Later I mentioned it to (Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez) and he was all on board.”

“(The banner project) was literally the result of a simple conversation discussing ways to celebrate the accomplishments of our students,” Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez said.

A collaboration between the city and Gonzales Unified School District brought that conversation to fruition.

“We ended up going half and half on funding the project,” McFarland said.

The first banners were rolled out Aug. 6 with many more to follow. The banners feature college-bound Gonzales High graduates who opted to participate in the project.

“Over the next few days we will be hanging approximately 45 banners recognizing and honoring our graduating seniors and their next steps,” Mendez said.

“Word spread after the first group had their banners put up,” McFarland said. “It’s impacted others to come forward and want to be recognized, too.”

According to Mendez, future banners will include students that will continue on to junior colleges, the military, technical schools and four-year colleges.

“I hope this is the start of an annual tradition and as the word gets out, I expect more banners,” Mendez said. “We thought it would be great to unveil this effort as part of National Night Out.”

With the community support, both McFarland and Mendez hope it expands in the coming years.

“Next year we hope to have the numbers grow and have it as a new tradition,” McFarland sad. “It makes my heart happy to celebrate our students.”