Maria Garcia isn’t your average high school senior.

Sure, she’s going to Cal State L.A. next year where she plans to study Political Science with a focus on Pan-African and Chicano Studies. And yes, she plans to use that education to provide more ethnic study programs in school and create more educational policies that empower underserved students. But while her fellow students are spending weekends at the movies or at the mall, she’s coordinating events with United Way that give fellow students the support that they might not be getting from their own public schools.

United Way sat down with Maria to chat about what motivates her and how she has -- and will continue to -- empower and motivate the people around her.

United Way: What are you currently working on with United Way?

Maria: We’re working on… it’s kind of like a forum for these [LAUSD] run-off candidates who come and answer more questions for students, but more in regards to college-readiness and accessibility for college. Some of us don’t have college counselors or we just never heard of college accessibility until our senior year, when it’s already too late.

Some of us don’t have college counselors or we just never heard of college accessibility until our senior year, when it’s already too late. We want to create an emphasis on college-readiness because it’s around the corner for most of us and we want to be able to provide these resources. We want to make these board members aware that their seat is going to make a huge impact on students and their futures.

United Way: Were you ever taught about college-readiness or the implication of how your A-G coursework affects college admission in school?

Maria: I did hear about A-Gs when I was in middle school but that was because we had a program called “Gear Up,” which helped us through middle school and high school.

[My] school never really talked to us about A-Gs. It was mostly “Gear Up” informing us about it and keeping us on track.

A lot of the students didn’t get to have the program because it was very selective with students. They would train us to teach other students.

United Way: While working with United Way, do you feel like you’ve been able to have an impact? Do you feel like you’ve been able to teach your fellow students about college-readiness or at least bring this issue to the school board’s attention?

Maria: Being a part of United Way has really helped me. [It] helped me coordinate an event to have professionals come in and review our college essays, because we don’t have a college counselor and we didn’t have anyone to help us revise them. 
And even though some of us didn’t get into any of [the public universities], it did help us in our AP literature class or in our English classes to improve our essays and also know how to put our stories on paper.

United Way: What has been your favorite experience working with United Way?

Maria: Working on the LA Youth Vote Campaign because I was able to cast my first vote on April 4th, which was an awesome experience because I’ve been working on this campaign for a long time. Seeing the final result, being able to cast my vote, and knowing that I was able to vote when I turned 18 was very fulfilling and an awesome experience.

United Way: How old were you when you began working on the LA Youth Vote?

Maria: It started at the end of my 10th grade year.

United Way: So you were only 15 or 16, which means you were working on this program for 2 years before you could actually vote? That’s incredible!

Maria: Yeah.

United Way: You want to study Political Science with a minor in Pan-African Studies and Chicano Studies. That’s impressive. What do you want to do with it?

Maria: I want to be able to provide more ethnic studies in schools and create more policies around education. I know that Pan-African programs, they help a lot with activism and that’s what I want to do &mdsh; empower more students to be involved like I was — and also advocate for their needs too.

United Way: Your community has helped you grow into the person you are today, so do you hope to one day use your education to give back to the L.A. community or to the people around you?

Maria: I want to do it because I want to give back to L.A. I grew up in L.A., my parents are here in L.A., this is where they settled. So I want to be able to give back to students that have the similar background that I do and give them that opportunity and that head start... to help them.