SALT LAKE CITY — Itzel Nava, 18, was only 3 years old when her family crossed the desert from their native Mexico. Eventually they came to Utah to establish themselves in the United States.
While a student at East High School, Nava challenged herself by participating in AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — a program designed to help students achieve academically beginning in elementary school. She also took advanced placement classes in high school.
“Growing up, I knew the idea of college but didn't know how to exactly get there. College was out of my reach, at least that's what it seemed like, especially being an undocumented student here in the United States,” Nava said. “Thanks to the University Neighborhood Partners program and the scholarship, it has helped motivate me to (pursue) higher education and provided me with support as well.”
She is currently a member of Mestizo Arts and Activism, a volunteer soccer coach and a volunteer mentor for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. This fall, she enrolled at the University of Utah, where she is pursuing a double major in political science and sociology.
“I plan to go to law school and work with the youth through activism in order to provide resources to underserved communities,” she said. “I hope to be the example I needed as a child for our children, and the way to do that is to achieve and prove that (attaining) higher education is possible no matter the circumstances.”
Clarissa Avila, 22, comes from a large family where many have been unable to pursue their educational goals. In third grade, she wrote a paper about her dream of becoming a doctor and shared it in class. When she finished reading it, the boy next to her said that she couldn’t become a doctor because she was Mexican and was meant to work in a factory. That comment motivated her to do whatever it took to achieve academic and career success. Today, she is a senior at the University of Utah.
Both students are recipients of awards from the Wolf/Meritus Scholarship Program from University Neighborhood Partners. The mission of University Neighborhood Partners is to bring together university and west-side resources in reciprocal learning, action and benefit, said development director Sarah Morton.
Established in 2007, the Wolf/Meritus Scholarship Program has helped 38 deserving students pursue their post-high school education goals, she said. One unique aspect of the awards is that they support the next step in the student’s educational path — whether it is a technical or vocational school, a community college or a university, she said.
Named after co-founders Joan and Hal Wolf, the program gives a student $3,000 for educational support, Joan Wolf said.
"Not the A student or the B student," she said. "Someone who had done well enough but was (likely) working 20 hours a week and who was (often) a first generation college aspirant."
She said this open approach is critical to meeting the needs of the residents of west-side neighborhoods, recognizing that there is no one best way for someone to get an education.
"We started with one $3,000 scholarship and then talked to friends who were also interested," Wolf said. From that point, they were able to attract other like-minded people who were willing to contribute their own money to the program, helping to sustain their efforts year after year, she said.
The students said the scholarship has helped give them the opportunity to achieve a lifelong goal.
"Through the program, I have received financial and academic support to follow my dreams of becoming a teacher. My academic consultant — provided by the UNP Wolf/Meritus Program — has been my greatest influence thus far," Avila said. "As a first generation (college) student, I have been provided with the right resources and support necessary for achieving my dreams of graduating and becoming a special education teacher (in) May 2017."
With the help of her academic consultant, Avila said he has been able to co-implement a tutoring program at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, where the goal is "to unlock the students’ potential, empower them to be leaders of their communities and guide them to higher education."
She said her long-term educational objective is to get a master's degree in special education at the U.
"I want to teach at an elementary school in the Salt Lake City school district, particularly at a school in the Glendale/Poplar Grove area to inspire and guide students to higher education and fulfill the mission of the UNP Wolf/Meritus Program," she said.
Barbara and Dennis Crouch were introduced to the program by the Wolfs. At the time, they were all working at the University of Utah as faculty or staff. She said what piqued their interest was the community engagement aspect and that the program provided access to higher education for students who wanted to attend college.
"Since our involvement, I have been moved by the stories of the scholarship recipients who are often the first person in their family to go to college," she explained. "The majority of the recipients are already giving to their community through involvement with (University Neighborhood Partners) and continue to engage throughout their time in college and after graduation. We are so proud to be a part of this program and to play a small part in helping increase access to higher education."
"It is a grass-roots scholarship program for underserved kids that is representative of giving (and) volunteering at the most sincere level," said Dennis Crouch. "All supporters are individuals, not philanthropic foundations and all are truly interested in helping high school grads achieve their dream of attending college."