Miss Young Philippines USA is not a title many people can claim, but 18-year-old Mariel Mendoza accepted it with ease. Each year, the honor is presented to the finest ambassadors of goodwill for the Filipino-American community. Mariel’s commitment to education and advocacy for the most vulnerable members of our community—as well as her grace and her passion for inspiring others—made her this year’s indisputable recipient.

A bold, well-rounded and gracious Angeleno, Mariel is a former member of United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Young Civic Leaders Program (YCLP). She joined YCLP in her junior year of high school and the program quickly opened her eyes to the problems affecting our society, inspiring her to make change.

Through YCLP, Mariel became an advocate for many issues affecting our community, including homelessness and education. She specifically fought to ensure she and her fellow students were receiving quality, equitable education—a right that is closely tied to her culture. Mariel’s parents have always emphasized the value of education, and Mariel believes that it is the most powerful tool, “because no one can take your knowledge away.”

Mariel says that YCLP taught her to be confident and to carry herself with grace. Perhaps more importantly, it taught her to care about others and helped her to become someone who is making an impact on her community. The program gave Mariel the responsibility of working hands-on with other students her age. In one formative instance, she and her fellow Young Civic Leaders coordinated a college readiness forum, where they spoke directly to district board member candidates about the challenges students faced and their proposed solutions.

The Miss Young Philippines USA competition gave Mariel the opportunity to share her purpose with a lot of people and receive even more opportunities for leadership. Now, Mariel is a first year student at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) and a part time student at Los Angeles City College (LACC). She is majoring in Pre-Business and plans to further her education, with the ultimate goal of becoming a CPA. She also wants to use her time to constantly give back to others, and she looks forward traveling and seeing the world.

Mariel's advice for today’s high school students is to get involved in various groups. “You get to meet a lot of people along the way, it looks good on your resume and it gives you a lot to look back on. Being involved in so many clubs and sports are what really made my high school experience worthwhile.”

The thing Mariel most values? Doing the ethical thing even when no one is looking. “I believe that’s what shows a person of true character,” she says.

Click here to learn more about United Way’s Young Civic Leaders Program and join the leaders of tomorrow.