By David Castro, Senior Web Editor, NCLR
Going to college was not in the cards for Sergio Valenzuela early in his high school career. That was until he accompanied a friend to a meeting of the NCLR Escalera Program: Taking Steps to Success, operated by NCLR Affiliate AltaMed Health Services Corporation at James A. Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles.
“I became involved with [Escalera] through a friend of mine. We’d hang out a little bit after school, and one day he told me he had to go to the library to meet with the case manager of this program his mom had signed him up for. So I went with him. They asked me if I wanted to be part of the program, I said ‘sure,’ and the rest is history,” recalls Valenzuela, a first-generation Mexican American born and raised in East L.A.
Through the program, Valenzuela was exposed to a different path. “Every event that they would take us to, it made me realize how important and impactful the program was,” he explained. “They took us to college campuses, which is something I never had the opportunity to do before. They helped us with college applications and financial aid, guiding us through the entire process.”
Valenzuela also credited his experiences with the Escalera Program as a junior and senior, as well as the people he met at the NCLR Annual Conference those years, with helping him grow as a professional. Yet it was his case manager, Diana Hernandez, who had the biggest impact on helping him choose a career as a leader for his community.
“She told me she had really enjoyed her studies,” said Valenzuela about Hernandez’s experiences within her own major. “It exposed her to different areas—political, social, economic—and that made me want to find out more about it,” he says. Valenzuela would go on to graduate from UCLA in 2013 with a dual major in international development and Spanish.
His work with the Escalera Program helped him land an internship with AltaMed during his senior year at UCLA. He now works there as the community relations and internships coordinator. He manages interactions with other local and national organizations and works to expand internship opportunities for medical students in different industries. In the near future, he plans to attend graduate school.
Valenzuela has a message to high school students exposed to programs such as Escalera. “I would let them know that along their lives they will come across different opportunities,” he says. “The opportunities they take advantage of will shape the people they’ll be in the future.”
“In my case, the AltaMed Escalera Program definitely played a big role in shaping the professional that I consider myself to be today. And this is not an opportunity students would want to pass on.”