Students Rising AboveBy Christin Ayers

by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — When she started at University of California, San Diego, Marlen Canales experienced more than her fair share of first-year college jitters.

“I had that dream and I knew I wanted to conquer it, but once I got there it was definitely shocking,” recalled Canales. “Being the first in the family to ever go to college, it was definitely hard going through that alone in San Diego. Didn’t know anyone, no one from my high school went there.”

Canales was homesick and her grades slipped.

“I went from an A-student to getting my first C, and I’m like, ‘What is this? This is not acceptable,'” said Canales.

But Canales stuck it out, and now she’s a senior studying microbiology and interning at Bay Area biotech giant Gilead in its clinical pharmacology department, where she relishes making professional contacts and friends. It has been a positive experience for the self-described “shy girl.”

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

“I’ve always been the shy person,” explained Canales. “But I’ve been really pushing myself to meet other professionals, and just gain what their life experiences have been, how have they gotten here.”

Canales has always been interested in other people’s stories. Back in high school, she volunteered with a peer education group designed to help young people manage stress through art and cultural activities. At the time, several of Canales’ family members were engaged in the street violence of Oakland, and seeing their struggles inspired Canales to make education her top priority.

When she spoke to KPIX back in high school Canales had clear goals.

“I want a good life for myself,” said Canales back then. “I want a good future. I want it to be worth all these challenges that I have been able to overcome.”

Now at she is realizing those goals both at her internship and at school.

“The opportunities are there for me,” said Canales. “And they’re intriguing for my own passion.”

That passion for knowledge impresses mentors like Gilead’s Dr. Rebecca Begley.

“This open curiosity and drive and kind of hunger for knowledge that’s there will do her well in whichever direction she chooses to go,” said Begley.

Canales says what she does in the future remains to be seen. She is contemplating grad school or med school. But she is proud of herself for making it this far, and she thinks her shy high school self would approve.

“I think she would be proud too,” said Canales. “She would tell me to keep going.”