Vanessa Cervantes: Becoming a leader

Vanessa Cervantes credits the strong support of her family for her success at UCSC. (Photo by Jim MacKenzie)

Vanessa Cervantes knows the importance of family when it comes to success.

She saw the determination of her hardworking parents, both high school dropouts, who saved their money and opened a jewelry store in the agricultural town of Santa Maria, Calif.

"My parents taught me never to give up," said Cervantes, a slim 21-year-old senior with dark eyes who avoided the gangs that peppered her town and instead turned to sports such as soccer and softball, earning a black belt in Tae Kwan Do as a youngster. Her parents and sister have tirelessly supported her, she said.

She also took inspiration from a cousin, Josue Medrano, who has been wheelchair-bound since childhood with cerebral palsy but became one of the first in his family to go to a university, earning a master's degree from UC Irvine. He encouraged Cervantes to study hard at Santa Maria High, where almost 25 percent of students drop out and only 4 percent go to a four-year college.

"He told me, 'You can do whatever you want,'" Cervantes said.

So, even though academics were a struggle, the shy Cervantes signed up for Advanced Placement classes and joined the soccer team. Her acceptance to UCSC "was a huge accomplishment for me."

At College Eight, Cervantes discovered another family. As a residential adviser, she found herself helping students with their problems and becoming a leader. She was named to the Student Committee on Committees and the Student Fee Advisory Committee. She helped put on a multicultural event that drew 500 students, and she joined the Latino Business Student Association.

In 2008, Cervantes was given a College Service Award from UCSC's Alumni Association, which included a $500 scholarship supported by membership in the organization.

The award was important for Cervantes, not only to demonstrate that a shy young woman had come so far, but also to help finance her final quarters at school after the recent economic downturn and her parents' divorce left her struggling financially. But Cervantes is determined to get her degree in sociology and eventually work for Child Protective Services before becoming a child psychologist.

It will be a way, she said, to help children who do not have what she had: a family.

You can help support today's student leaders by becoming a member of the UCSC Alumni Association. A portion of your fee goes to support awards and scholarships for deserving students such as Vanessa Cervantes.