UC Merced senior Patricia Paredes didn’t grow up in the best neighborhood or have the easiest childhood.
But she overcame those hardships to graduate from a San Jose high school and enroll at the University of California’s newest campus.
Now, Paredes is sharing her story of perseverance with Merced County school children. She’s one of several UC Merced students who are part of Merced County Project 10%, an ambitious program aimed at improving high school graduation rates by 10 percent over the next five years.
The project puts university students in middle school classrooms to stress the importance of graduating from high school. Officials are looking for ways to measure whether the presentations are helping change middle school students’ attitudes toward school.
A dozen UC Merced students now are involved in the project and more are being recruited.
“UC Merced has the perfect students to identify with Merced County’s middle school students,” Paredes said.
Project 10% is collaboration between UC Merced students and community leaders, including District Attorney Larry Morse and county Superintendent of Schools Steve Gomes.
It began to take shape last year after Paredes and fellow student Noel “Justin” Gomez returned from the Latino Leadership Initiative Program at Harvard University Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Paredes and Gomez wanted to follow through on their Harvard experience by creating a program that would transform the community, she said. Morse was working with other community members to find ways to encourage children to stay in school because of the strong connection between dropouts and crime.
Morse said high school dropouts make less money, are more likely to need public assistance and also comprise about 70 percent of the nation’s prison population. Research indicates that a 10 percent increase in California’s graduation rates would yield a 20 percent drop in murder and assaults, according to the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
Armed with those statistics, he had been searching for the best way to reach middle school students. Morse connected with UC Merced students after an on-campus speech originally built around public policy and the relationship between the community and university.
But he quickly focused more attention on the Project 10% idea because so many students were in attendance. Morse knew they could help.
“We needed to find the right messenger,” Morse said.
Now, the messengers are UC Merced students who often have conquered obstacles on the road to college.
“Simply by telling them your story, you are showing potential in what they can be,” said UC Merced senior Maria Rodriguez, another member of the team.
“Sometimes as a kid, all I wanted was someone to tell me I could do it,” Rodriguez said.
UC Merced students already have spoken at several Merced County schools. The 45-minute presentation includes personal stories, activities and discussion.
Paredes, a sociology major, shares her story of living in a low-income San Jose neighborhood touched by gangs and domestic violence. She overcame that environment and other challenges, and hopes youngsters can identify with her story.
“Maybe you are struggling, but we did too,” Paredes said.
Rodriguez, of San Diego, tells students that she had problems at home and often coped by making poor choices. She fell in with the wrong crowd and was constantly in trouble at school.
But a teacher pushed her to follow her college dreams.
“That made me believe in myself,” said Rodriguez, a political science major who is a first-generation college student.
Gomes, the superintendent of schools, said he’s heard positive reviews of the program. UC Merced students are good role models for middle school students who might not picture themselves at a UC campus, he added.
“It’s a good start, and it is a program that can have some impact,” Gomes said.
Rodriguez thinks Project 10% could expand to other areas of the state and country. She said the program gives UC Merced students the chance to make a difference and helps strengthen the relationship between the campus and local community.
Project leaders want to reach more middle schools in the upcoming year.
“Hopefully, the students can see a reflection of themselves in us,” Paredes said.