Every Student Succeeding: Maria Perez

Maria’s first commitment is to service. Her second… to social justice. Maria was born in Salvatierra Guanajuato, Mexico. While her father served as a migrant worker in the United States, Maria grew up in poverty with her mother and her siblings. As she learned English and adjusted to the culture change of American schools, she quickly became deeply involved in school activities. At Pajaro Valley High School in PVUSD, she has sought out numerous opportunities for community service and leadership with organizations such as Regeneration and Watsonville Wetlands Watch. She’s also involved with Food What?!, the Migrant Student Association and the Project Green Challenge to name only a few. But it’s her role as president of the DREAM club that fuels her drive to help others. She will be the first member of her family to graduate from junior high and high school and will be the first in her family to attend college. This fall, Maria will start classes at UC Berkeley where she plans to study sustainable farming and food justice/environmental issues.


August 15, 2017

Pajaro Valley student leading a life of service

If there is a club to join or an activity to take part in, Maria Perez is happy to sign up. She has made it her life’s mission to help those less fortunate.

“It just feels right to help,” Maria said. “I have a lot of opportunities to help in different clubs. And it just feels right.”

To understand why Maria is so eager to give back, you have to go back to the beginning. Maria was born in Salvatierra, Guanajuato, Mexico. While her father served as a migrant worker in the United States, Maria grew up in poverty with her mother and her siblings.

“The neighborhood where I grew up, there were a lot of gangs,” Maria said. “So when I was in elementary school, a lot of my friends were already getting involved in gangs. It was also hard because I know my dad was working really hard here in the United States. But we never really had all of the things that were necessary for us. I know my parents did the best they could, but sometimes just even food was a problem for us.”

Maria’s father gained permanent residency status in 2011. More importantly, he secured visas for the entire family to make the move to California. Maria struggled to adapt to the new environment and new language.

“I was a teenager so for a lot of young people, that’s the time you try to find who you are, your identity as a person,” Maria said. “And for me, I was trying to figure out growing up in Mexico. And then I just came to the United States and it was like, ‘Wow.’ Here I am, 12 years old, trying to find out who I am. And then I just find myself in this place where I feel like I don’t belong.”

Even Maria’s father initially second-guessed the decision as his daughter begged him to let the family return to Mexico.

“It was something difficult for me because I didn’t know what to do with her because she saw the school where she was supposed to go and she was crying,” Eulalio Perez said through a translator. “She cried for one week and she wanted to go back.”

In time, Maria realized she had two options: hopelessly yearn for her old life in Mexico or make the most of her new life in Watsonville. She quickly chose the latter.

“If I don’t do anything to change it, it’s not going to get any better. So I just stayed after school every day and did my homework because at home, I asked my dad and my mom, ‘Can you help me do my English homework?’ They didn’t understand it.”

Maria quickly immersed herself in community service and school activities at Pajaro Valley High. She’s involved with Food What?!, the Migrant Student Association and the Project Green Challenge. But it’s her role as president of the DREAM club that fuels her drive to help others. The club is devoted to supporting undocumented students and their families through fundraising, cultural events, and free legal services.

“Every event, every possible opportunity, she has taken it upon herself to get herself involved,” said Maria Elena Valenzuela, assistant principal at Pajaro Valley High. “I am so honored to have worked with her and to know her because I think she’s very inspiring to all of us, and she’s the reason why we continue doing this work in education— because we see students like Maria be successful.”

This fall, Maria will start classes at UC Berkeley as a first-generation college student. Maria understands the gravity of her impact and hopes she’ll set the tone for future generations.

“Just being the first one to go to college, it’s scary but it’s powerful,” Maria said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t think I was going to go to college. I always had in my mind, ‘If I go to college.’ But now... I am going to college and I’m so excited about it.”

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