UC Berkeley was a “huge cultural shock” at first for Michael Piña, a Kerman native from the central San Joaquin Valley.
“The Hispanic population was completely absent,” Piña recalled of his first days as a UC Berkeley student, “and it was really shocking to me how many students from my community and with my similar identities aren’t in this and other prestigious universities.”
He used that shock and other challenges as inspiration to do good.
“It really pushed me to create a program where I help students from the Central Valley get admitted into these prestigious universities as well,” Piña said.
The program he started this year is called Central Valley Scholars. It’s run by college students from Berkeley, UC Davis and Stanford University who are from the Valley and a team of around 50 volunteers. They are providing free workshops and online mentors to help Valley residents apply for college, financial aid and scholarships. Their first college workshop is in Mendota on Saturday.
The new group also started fundraising for three scholarships – one of them for students who identify as LGBTQ. Piña said the queer scholarship is the first of its kind from Merced to Bakersfield.
“I want to give queer students from the Central Valley the space to share their story, to be recognized and state that they are an important part of this community and their voices should be heard,” Piña said. “This scholarship does exactly that.”
Its creation was fueled by personal experiences applying for college scholarships as a Kerman High School senior.
During one scholarship interview, Piña answered a question about some of his greatest challenges. He talked about discrimination he faced for being gay, going through a Catholic Church exorcism when he was 13 years old, and how his high school yearbook quote – “Yeah I dress nice. I wasn’t in the closet this long for nothing.” – was almost censored.
The interviewer responded: “Well the real issue is you being gay, not what happened to you.”
“I was just crushed. … I really didn’t apply to any (scholarships) after that, I was so discouraged,” Piña said.
Piña graduated from Kerman High as a valedictorian with a 4.2 grade-point average.
He will start his junior year at UC Berkeley in the fall with a major in sociology with a double minor in Spanish and human rights. He’s on the fence between becoming an attorney or doing work that sets public policy. He’s working at two law firms this summer.
At UC Berkeley, he does LGBTQ+ alumni outreach for the Gender Equity Resource Center.
Piña is excited that Central Valley Scholars will help him and other Valley natives stay more connected to home.
“Part of the issue is, the few of us who get to these big universities, we don’t come back,” Piña said. He wants Central Valley Scholars to be “a place to invite them back and to help students and to help our own communities.”
He said that work is especially important in the Valley, where many schools don’t have enough college counselors, and fewer students go to college than in many other parts of the state and nation.
In addition to the queer scholarship, Central Valley Scholars is fundraising for a scholarship for a student who is the first in their family to go to college, and another for an undocumented student. The group hopes to raise $1,000 for each scholarship.
Piña recently talked with students in Mendota about those scholarships.
“When I read undocumented scholarship, these students eyes lit up,” Piña said. “It was the first time they saw their identity – undocumented – as something good. That’s a really important scholarship as well.”
Piña is a first-generation college student and son of immigrant parents from Mexico who became U.S. citizens when he was a boy.
Participants in upcoming Central Valley Scholars college workshops can expect help with their essays and applications, including for federal financial aid (FAFSA) and undocumented students, “how to brand themselves,” and a networking panel so students can engage with professionals and college graduates. The group is focused on helping people interested in applying to a four-year university.
The free online college mentors additionally provide answers to questions within 24 hours, along with one-hour phone calls once a month from August to February, Piña said.
Araceli Sierra, who was a college adviser for Piña when he was in high school, is very proud of all he’s accomplished.
“Anyone that knows Michael knows that Michael is a fierce advocate,” Sierra said. “He is very intelligent, he is very well-spoken, he is a light. I love him and I’m so proud of what he’s doing at this moment.”
Central Valley Scholars will host the following free workshops from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for people interested in applying for college, financial aid and scholarships. RSVP at centralvalleyscholars.org. Approximately 20 people will be able to attend each workshop, which will include free breakfast and lunch. A pair of AirPods will be raffled.
▪ July 20, Mendota High School Library, 1282 Belmont Ave., Mendota
▪ July 27, 8696 Main St., San Joaquin
▪ Aug. 3, Kerman Scout Hut, 15061 W. G St., Kerman