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Jefferson Award Winner Helps San Francisco’s Youth Succeed In College

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SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — This week’s Jefferson Award winner has been an Air Force Sergeant, a youth pastor, and a systems and network engineer. That career path has helped Sonya Brunswick change young people’s lives today.

Maritess Pajares works 30 hours a week, part of the time as a patient care assistant at the University of California at San Francisco.

She is also a single mom and a full-time student at San Francisco State University.

“I really wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for the help and support they have given me,” Maritess said.

“They” is the Maisin Scholar Award program, and its Executive Director Sonya Brunswick.

Mrs. Brunswick is like a second mom to me,” said Maritess. “She is always checking up and encouraging me to keep going and giving me that extra support I need when I feel like giving up.”

Maritess is one of Sonya’s 250 current Maisin Scholars.

They are students from San Francisco high schools who receive partial college scholarships, based not just on grades, but also on their commitment.

They were seniors last year.

Now they are college freshmen.

“We are looking for young people who have exhibited resilience, who have overcome obstacles,” Sonya explained.

Sonya knows about resilience. After growing up in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley, she joined the military.

“I felt that if I didn’t leave San Francisco, I was going to end up dead or in jail,” said Sonya.

But she thrived, and knows other students can, if they’re just given the chance.

“We are here to help them to encourage them, that they can rise from the ashes,” she said. “For me I look at them and the community I have come out of, and I can appreciate the challenge.

Under Sonya’s leadership, the student’s don’t just receive checks.

They also check in: Sonya added a community college advisor for Maisin Scholars, and set up a system to help her students identify and navigate paths to their goals.

As a result, Maisin Scholars are now twice as likely to stay in school.

“What we have been able to see is that students are much more successful with that guidance, and we work with them semester by semester and check up on them,” Sonya explained.

Sonya started a new internship program for professional development, and she’s transformed her office into a gathering space to offer students a sense of community.

“I can come here, do homework, work on resumes and applications and she’s always a helping hand to be there,” Maritess said.

In two months, Maritess Pajares will graduate from college on the same day that her son, Jaden, will graduate from kindergarten.

She’s going to nursing school, fufilling a dream that not that long ago seemed a long way away.

“I’m not surprised. It was the determination that was in her and on her person,” said Sonya. “These are the students that one day can make a difference and will make a difference in our communities, and those are the students I want to invest in.”

So for creating a platform for success to help disadvantaged students reach their full potential, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Sonya Brunswick.

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