Maria Reyes knew just a handful of people who went on to college after graduating from high school in her tough South Central Los Angeles neighborhood.
Half of her own class didn’t even make it to graduation — dropping out because of gangs, teen pregnancy or worse — and Reyes, a middle child of Mexican immigrants, hadn’t seen any of her seven siblings attend a university, either.
Somehow Reyes was able to persevere through the violence, finding herself at UC Santa Barbara to study to become a teacher.
After she took her first Chicano studies class, however, Reyes realized her calling to research and to help fellow at-risk underrepresented youth by becoming a social worker.
Since then, and because of her efforts, the bright 22-year-old honors student will graduate this weekend with the university’s Thomas More Storke Award for Excellence, the highest student honor given for outstanding scholarship and extraordinary service to the university community.
Reyes will graduate Sunday with degrees in Chicana/Chicano studies and Latin American and Iberian studies and minors in education and applied psychology.
If she can do it, Reyes said, she knows others like her can, too.
“I didn’t have these role models growing up,” she said. “It was tough. It’s full of violence.”
Reyes arrived at UCSB self-conscious and full of doubt, unsure whether she could excel in her high-level classes and practically living at Davidson Library.
Challenging professors compelled her to do more, and she began delving into research that helped straighten her life goals.
Reyes collaborated with Laura Romo, associate professor of education and director of the Center for Chicano Studies, exploring Latina mother/daughter communication and nutritional lessons in pre-kindergarten classrooms.
She worked three jobs within student life to pay for her tuition, and last summer she visited Argentina through a study abroad trip.
Her path to success was nearly derailed eight months ago, when a younger brother was killed in a car accident; still, Reyes persisted through pain.
“Those expectations kept me going,” she said of working with caring professors. “It’s been tough for my family.”
After Sunday’s ceremony, where Reyes will be surrounded by family, she will move back closer to them to attend the University of Southern California to complete her master’s degree in social work.
She chose USC because it’s within her community — one she hopes to serve and positively change for the better.