Olivia Bentley has a deep-seated passion for community service which, bolstered by sociology classes at UC Merced, grows stronger each year.
Bentley has been involved with the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life since the eighth grade and will draw on her considerable experience May 22-23 when she continues her involvement in her hometown, Sonora.
"I keep returning to Relay for Life because it's a great program with great events, all for a great cause," she said.
Bentley's commitment to the American Cancer Society reflects UC Merced's mission of uplifting the surrounding community while equipping students with the skills to become tomorrow's leaders.
Forming a team began as a way to reconnect elementary school friends who moved on to different middle schools. It has become a cause very close to her heart and is a launching pad for future plans.
"At first I was attracted to Relay for Life because it gave me the chance to organize teams to bring old friends back together and bring new friends into it," Bentley said. "Then it got so big - about 50 people - that we had to split our team into two teams, and I was head captain of both."
Most people would have found themselves overwhelmed, but Bentley just kept getting more and more involved, and her leadership role has increased over the years. At one point she served as the entertainment chair for her area's Relay for Life group. The American Cancer Society also sent her to two leadership conferences while she was in high school.
Bentley entered UC Merced as a management major, but took a sociology class freshman year and has never looked back. "I like studying groups of people and the behavioral aspects of it," she said.
Her new major means more than a degree. She said it is the spark that has her thinking about the future in a whole new way.
"I have always wanted to start a nonprofit for youth to pass on what I have learned and the leadership skills I have developed," Bentley explained. "The sociology classes here have made me realize that I really want to take more of a hands-on approach than I'd originally thought."
As a senior and associated student body president in high school, she organized a leadership conference for eighth graders in the surrounding community that earned her the "Outstanding Senior Project" award.
As part of the process to organize the conference, Bentley joined Toastmasters and added public speaking and professionalism to her skill set.
Bentley wants to teach young people the values she has been cultivating in herself since she began giving back to her community.
"I believe it's important to teach things like self-esteem, how to create a better tomorrow, respect for yourself and others, and the courage to stick to your morals when they are challenged," Bentley said.
Though the drive to Sonora from Merced is more than an hour, Bentley said she will always be involved in her hometown. "My parents still live there, and I'm the oldest of five and I want to be a role model for them," she said. "Most of all, I want to always be a strong part of their lives."
Relay for Life has allowed Bentley to stay connected with Sonora, make a difference in the community, and focus on her goal of establishing the nonprofit for youth.