Uriel Bravo is about to become a freshman at Merced High School, but he's already thinking about college — thanks partly to the encouragement of a UC Merced program.
"I really want to go to college," he said. "I know if I don't go, I won't find a good-paying job."
Uriel, 14, is one of the hundreds of students touched by the UC Merced Police Department's Mentor Program  since it began in 2006. Through the program, UC Merced student mentors and other role models work with fourth-grade students at Alicia Reyes Elementary School in south Merced.
UC Merced students help provide academic tutoring, community service programs and other activities that encourage youngsters to make positive life choices.
UC Merced Police Officer Maria Botwright said children as young as fourth grade are exposed to negative influences and even recruited by gangs. The police mentor program shows them a better way.
"The goal is to give elementary school kids an alternative to joining gangs," she said. "It's a positive program that they can belong to."
The children — known as Junior Bobcats — visit the UC Merced campus, have pizza parties, participate in neighborhood cleanups and get help with homework.
A summer program — featuring both fun and academics — is offered in alternating years, with the next planned for 2012.
Botwright said the campus hopes to expand the program to other schools. The tight economy has slowed that effort, but Botwright said supporters are searching for creative ways to push forward that growth.
The program already enjoys broad community support, with organizations such as the United Way, Soroptimist International and Via Adventures investing time, materials or money. Many from the UC Merced campus also volunteer time or provide other support, she said.
She and others say the mentoring program is making a difference at Reyes. During their first presentation at the campus, Botwright asked students whether they knew about college.
Only a few raised their hands.
Now, Botwright said, every Reyes student knows about college.
Some UC Merced students are at the school several times a week, and nearly three dozen students volunteered with the police mentor program last year. The program started with five UC Merced students in 2006.
One veteran volunteer is Brenda Camberos, 22, of Oxnard. She has spent more than four years in the program — and will continue next fall as she finishes her biological sciences  degree at UC Merced.
Camberos, a first-generation college student, sees herself in those small faces. As a child, she didn't have anyone who could talk to her about college or encourage her to pursue that goal.
Now, she's a role model for students at Reyes. Camberos visits the campus several times a week during the school year, and she sees more and more students interested in academics and good choices.
"I want to influence them not to take that other path," Camberos said. She also shows them that "the future doesn't end with high school."
Uriel knows that. He remembers getting help with math from UC Merced mentors and lunchtime activities like dodgeball.
Now, he's thinking about college — and possibly UC Merced.