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YOF Scholars Plan Careers That Focus on Contributing to Society


Like many fellow students, Dunia Fernandez has chosen a career path that focuses on solving some of today's problems to improve conditions for people in the future.

The recent Garfield High School graduate, who was one of more than 300 Latino graduates in the state chosen as Youth Opportunities Foundation exceptional scholars, plans to study international relations at Brown University in the fall. Fernandez, 18, said she wants to help people in developing countries, especially in Latin America.

Along with many fellow YOF scholars, Fernandez said she chose her career path for the chance to contribute to society.

The foundation honored 176 of this year's student scholars from Los Angeles and Orange counties at a recent luncheon at the Quiet Cannon restaurant in Montebello. The event was sponsored by Nuestro Tiempo/Los Angeles Times and Bank of America.

Fidel Vargas, a 1986 YOF scholar and the recently elected mayor of Baldwin Park, praised the students' achievements and said he is optimistic about the contributions they will make to society.

"In your eyes I see ambition and concern for your communities," he told the students, seated at tables with their parents.

With cities and schools struggling with fewer resources, and with crime, unemployment and race relations problems surging, Vargas said, today's youths may hold solutions.

"Our society today is a global society. We have to step forward to address the problems of this community and this world," Vargas said. "I look around and see the people who are going to solve the problems we have today."

Garfield High School graduate Jose Valdovinos, 18, hopes he can help improve conditions in the world and plans to study environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I like finding answers to challenging problems," Valdovinos said. "We're messing up everything. You have to do things better and not just be selfish."

Martha Serrano, 18, was one of five students who received $500 Thelma Castro Memorial Scholarships in recognition of their dedication to community, family and education. She plans to attend Stanford University to study political science in preparation for a career in government or law.

Serrano, who graduated from Roosevelt High School, learned the value of good deeds when she took herself out of neighborhood gangs in Boyle Heights and turned her focus to school in her sophomore year. In the process of catching up on her studies, she said, she influenced some of her friends who belonged to gangs to do the same.

"That's all I was exposed to. We have a lot of problems with gangs," she said. "It's so easy to get into that, but to really do well in school is a challenge, and I personally like challenges."

Another Castro Scholarship winner, Idis Martinez, 17, hopes to become an electrical engineer after attending UC Davis. The Bell High School graduate, who was born in Nicaragua, also looks forward to participating in a UCLA outreach program called Latinas Guiding Latinas, in which college students help high school students and their families prepare for the rigors of college.

"I was helped, and now it's my turn to help," Martinez said.

The Youth Opportunities Foundation has recognized outstanding Latino students for the past 28 years. Thirty-five of this year's students from Los Angeles and Orange counties ranked either first or second in their graduating classes. Many of the YOF students are involved in athletics, hold part-time jobs or volunteer for a number of activities.

Altogether, YOF recognized 342 California students this year.

"These students represent the cream of the crop," YOF Executive Director Felix Castro said. "They're not only leaders scholastically, but they are leaders in their communities." Castro said they "are going to the very best schools," including Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League institutions, as well as Stanford, Pomona College and various University of California campuses, including Berkeley.

The students represent a strong hope "that will help this community move one step forward," said George Castro, who--with two brothers, a sister and an aunt--awarded the scholarships in his late mother's honor.

"Every student in this hall is going to do well financially. The key question is . . . what kind of leaders are they going to be?" he said. "If every person reached out and helped another move forward, there is no limit to what we can do."

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