Boyle Heights student engineers exceptional inroad to college
A journey from making bread in Mexico to award-winning robotics engineer
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At only 8 years old, Cynthia Erenas was detained by while trying to cross the border to the United States from Mexico. Although her father operated the family's small bakery in Mexico, he believed the opportunity was much greater for his family in America. Her father, mother, and older sister made it to the US in 2005, and encouraged her to cross with her young adult cousin.
Once detained, they spent the night on a bathroom floor in the jail, huddled together to keep warm on a cold winter night. Erenas was forced to leave with her cousin the next day to return to Tijuana, Mexico. “It was too early for me to feel like that. To feel like I was being discriminated against by the people around us," she recalls.
Eventually, Erenas made it to the US as a teenager and reconnected with her family, which had settled in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood. The community is within eyesight of downtown LA's skyline, and is rich with Latino culture, music, and restaurants. “My biggest struggle was learning how to speak the language and how to communicate with others," Erenas recalls, adding: “I was fortunate to have a lot of support from my teachers, and learned English in about one year getting help from them after school."
First generation graduate
Last spring, Erenas graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. As a student, she received numerous awards and recognition. She has given a Tedx talk, and was featured in LA Weekly as "LA's Smartest Girl," and placed in the top 10 of 32,000 applicants in a robotics competition. Her accomplishments are even more remarkable, given the constant threat of drugs, gangs, and violence during her upbringing in Boyle Heights.
Erenas is a shining example of the type of student graduating through the i.am.angel College Track program. In fact, she credits the program with keeping her away from negative influences and changing her future for the better.
"Our sole mission is to help students achieve their college degree," says College Track executive director, Saskia Pallais. She continues, "We work after school and provide a holistic, comprehensive program so that they are as best prepared to get into the college of their dream."
will.i.am supports the community
The founder of College Track is musician, entertainer, and entrepreneur will.i.am. Like Erenas, he grew up in Boyle Heights before vaulting to superstar status as the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas. "There is a couple of leaders in our program and Cynthia is one of them," he explains. "She'll go out and talk very passionately about what we're doing which I'm very proud of."
“To see someone like Will not as an artist—but a mentor and someone who would call me and speak to other young kids like myself just to check in with us—has been incredible," Erenas says. “He is willing to listen to your problems with no judgment and understands your point of view."
Launched in 2009, College Track provides social and academic support to over 260 Boyle Heights students from Roosevelt High School each year. In fact, 98 percent of students will be the first in their families to apply to college with 94 percent of them coming from families that are living at or below the federal poverty level, according to the foundation website.
In addition to training students to write and apply for scholarships, the foundation provides both merit-based and need-based financial aid. Erenas learned recently that she has been awarded an i.am.angel scholarship. And this fall, she will attend the University of California, San Diego, where she will focus on aerospace or computer science as a major.
Believing in herself
Erenas wasn't always sure she could make it this far. She recounts: “I did doubt myself at times because no one in my family had ever done it. And now that I'm going to college, it's a little scary because Mexican families are very close so it will be hard to be away from them." At the same time, she knows her success has been worth the effort. “It makes me so proud that my nephews can look up to me now. One of them wants to be an astronaut and the other wants to be an investor or engineer," she says.
“I started with Engineering 101 at a community college and now will be attending one of the top three programs for engineering in California. I'm excited about what the future holds."
Erenas has always remembered a quote that her middle school teacher, Mr. Lebowski, shared with her and will bring it along on her journey to be the first in her family to earn a college degree: "Dream big and go beyond the stars. The sky is the limit."
Evan Kirkpatrick is a Chase contributor who focuses on the intersection of entertainment and philanthropy. His work has been featured in Forbes, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal.