A Thriving Community

From undocumented students to former professionals, the LEAD Scholars Program showcases a range of students’ backgrounds and the broad opportunities available when they get here.

From undocumented students to former professionals, the LEAD Scholars Program showcases a range of students’ backgrounds and the broad opportunities available when they get here.

The mural, an explosion of colors, covered one wall of a portable classroom at Washington Elementary school in San Jose. A group of children—3rd and 4th graders—excitedly gathered around it. The mural had been designed by them and to see it come to life through the volunteer painting efforts of local artists brought a smile to their faces.

The mural project was part of an after-school program through the Thriving Neighbors Initiative, run by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education. The after-school program supports SCU faculty and students in developing and delivering hands-on learning experiences for 3rd-7th grade students in the Greater Washington community of San Jose and is designed to make college a reality for all.

One SCU student involved in Thriving Neighbors (TNI), Lyndon Enow ’17, had a particular interest in participating—he is a product of a different mentoring program that encouraged him to come to SCU and now he wants to give back to the community by being a role model.

“It both instilled the importance of higher education and taught me that regardless of the obstacles that might come, higher education is attainable,” Enow said. “If it wasn’t for [the Thriving Neighbors Initiative], I don’t think I would be here at SCU. TNI doesn’t focus on the difficulty; it focuses on the work ethic. They like to instill the notion that academics come first and college shouldn’t be something you’re scared of, but something you’re motivated to get to.”

Of course, just getting to campus isn’t the end of the challenge. That’s where the LEAD Scholars program comes in, providing first-generation college students with a community of peers and a program dedicated to rigorous academic achievement, student leadership, community engagement, and service. After arriving at SCU, Enow decided to join the LEAD program, where he joined students who shared similar experiences and who were just as motivated to make an impact. A number of them have since participated in programs such as the Thriving Neighbor Initiative as a way to give back.

From Semi-homeless to the Lab

Another LEAD scholar, mechanical engineering major Eduardo Melendez ’16, was ineligible for most forms of financial aid when he came to SCU in 2010 because he was undocumented. He pieced together a bunch of private scholarships and his family sold property so he could come to SCU for his first year, but the money quickly ran out.

Forced to stay with friends, Melendez attended community colleges in the area for the next two years, staying with friends and jumping from place to place in a self-described “semi-homeless” state, until he got the scholarship money he needed in 2012 and returned to Santa Clara.

Melendez said that his first-year experiences, including his involvement with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (Melendez is now its president) and attending Masses at the Mission Church, made him realize how he wanted to stay at SCU.

“I struggled during those two years away from Santa Clara,” Melendez said. “But looking back now I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. It made me grow much more as a person and a professional. Although I was semi-homeless it was a great learning experience that taught me I was here for more than just an education. I was here for my family members who helped me out throughout the way, and the friends and family I made here.”

Pursuing Something Greater

Jesus Fernandez ’17 also took a non-traditional route to Santa Clara, first working seven years as a warehouse specialist at the Second Harvest Food Bank before attending community college and then transferring to SCU.

“A lot of my colleagues (at Second Harvest) inspired me to come back to school and really pursue something greater for myself,” Fernandez said. “For a moment I had settled there, I was complacent, and fortunately I had a great supporting cast around me that pushed me and gave me the necessary confidence and sense of believing in myself and my capabilities.”

Fernandez now wants to return the favor. He is tutoring underserved middle school and high school students as an algebra tutor with Elevate, hoping to engage and inspire those students who might need a confidence boost themselves.

“When I was in high school, college seemed impossible,” said Fernandez, a communications major. “And speaking to some of the students I work with at Elevate, college seems impossible to them. I feel like I can connect with them and provide a living example that it’s not an insurmountable task.”

Getting Ready for the World

Aliyah Morphis ’17 didn’t initially want to join the LEAD program.

“I thought I didn’t need any extra help,” Morphis said. “Talking to my mom, she basically told me to take advantage of every resource that’s out there. ‘You don’t know how to navigate it, maybe you do need extra help because I personally can’t help you and the family can’t help you.’ After joining, I have no regrets.”

Morphis said that the LEAD program has provided a family away from home, offering moral support and helping her find funding for her trip to El Salvador.

Morphis has traveled through SCU programs four times in her first three years – to Nicaragua twice with the Global Medical Brigades, to El Salvador for a public health internship, and to Baja Mexico through the Ignatian Center.

Morphis, a public health major from the East Bay, is now the president of Global Medical Brigades. About 30 SCU students raised more than $50,000 to set up a three-day clinic in Nicaragua last year that included public health seminars and a pharmacy station.

Matthew Salmanpour ’16, an electrical engineering major, never got a B throughout high school, but he got one in his first class at SCU. He said his experience with the LEAD program helped him realize that learning is more than a perfect transcript.

“For a lot of first-generation college students there’s a lot of pressure on you to be successful.” said Salmanpour, a Sunnyvale, Calif., resident whose parents were refugees from Iran. “LEAD really assisted in mitigating that and encouraging you and empowering you.”