RICHMOND (CBS 5) – An East Bay woman is changing the way students see themselves, and breaking stereotypes in the process. This week’s Jefferson Award winner runs a unique program that helps make college dreams come true.

“When I walk into a room, the word ‘scientist’ is not what comes to mind when people see me,” Mayra Padilla explained with a laugh.

Padilla is used to surprising people. She has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UC Berkeley. It’s an accomplishment she never imagined growing up in Richmond, after she and her family moved there from Mexico when she was six.

“I just remember getting to Richmond and there were no trees, no one looked like me, I couldn’t speak the language,” she recalled.

But she could understand numbers, and did well in high school, especially math. But she figured college wasn’t an option.

“I was kinda like, ‘Well, we can’t afford it, and you know, we’re not really into going to college, we need to get jobs,'” she said.

After Padilla became a mother at 18, she thought college was forever out of reach. But then she found a unique education support program. It’s called METAS, or “goals” in Spanish, and serves more than 100 students from the West Contra Costa County School District.

“I certainly would not have gone off to college without the program,” Padilla emphasized. “I can say that with certainty.”

METAS volunteers tutor junior high and high school students. Contra Costa College donates the space, and sponsors special classes and workshops. There’s a parent support group, and a sense of community that drew Padilla back even after she graduated. For the last eleven years, she has volunteered as director of METAS, running the very program that changed her life.

“One of my students just got admitted into UC Berkeley, in the astrophysics department,” she reported proudly. “We have another student doing engineering at UC Berkeley. We have a biochemist, we have pre-med students, and business executives.”

In fact, she says 95% of the kids in her program go on to college, like Manny Diaz, who just graduated from a writing program in Switzerland. Now he’s back home and volunteering with METAS.

“If it weren’t for Mayra,” Diaz said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “She’s the reason I went this far.”

‘This feeling that you can create something different for yourself, and that you don’t have to buy into that image of society the way people feed it to you, that you can actually have the power to change that — that’s what drives me,” Padilla added.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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