Students Rising Above

By Michelle Griego and Jennifer Mistrot

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — If this Students Rising Above story were a movie, it would probably be more of a buddy film than an action thriller. Either way, it would have two leads, each sharing the role of hero.

Maximus Vega and his dad Steven are best friends. Their favorite pastime is watching movies. In fact, Maximus is named after Russell Crowe’s character in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Gladiator.’ On a recent sunny day in a park near the family’s Santa Rosa home, father and son watched a few clips of the movie on their laptop.

“I already thought Maximus was a cool name. Then I saw the movie ‘Gladiator,'” explained Steven Vega. “And I thought ‘What could be a better name than that?'”

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It is a great name for a great kid, one who is dedicated to his single dad. Maximus was just five years old when Steven was diagnosed with cancer. The illness left the elder Vega unable to work. The family was hit hard financially eventually lost their home.

“We went through about four years of homelessness; maybe five. It was really tough,” remembered Steven Vega. “But even when we were in the shelter program, Max still excelled at school.”

That might be an understatement. In the time period when the family was homeless, Maximus had a perfect school attendance record several years in a row.

During his middle school years, he also completed 238 hours of volunteer work. He graduated from Casa Grande High School in Petaluma in 2020 with a 4.5 GPA.

“My major right now is psychology. And then I also plan on minoring in mathematics,” Maximus said of his college plans. “What I really want to plan on doing after college is being a talk therapist. I just really want to be able to help people in a job, to be able to satisfy my passion while also helping others.”

His passion for serving others led the 18-year-old UC Santa Cruz freshman to tutoring jobs. Three years ago, the family moved into a new home in Santa Rosa. Now as they quarantine together, Maximus helps his little sister with her school work too.

He currently tutors for Elevate Tutoring, an organization that provides free tutoring services to underserved students. His area of expertise, mathematics, is also impressive.

“I tutor in math,” shared Maximus. “That is the main subject I tutor in. Being there for other students. It’s very nice!”

Steven Vega appreciates his son’s caring heart.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my son, that’s for sure!” said the happy father. “He really inspired me because at times when I felt sick, could barely get out of bed or anything, he was the push and enthusiasm that got me up.”

Maximus is glad for the positive turn in his dad’s health.

“I was so grateful that he was able to survive his battle with cancer,” said Maximus. “Today, thinking back to it now, I’m just like…wow! I can’t believe how much he went through.”

As this father and son enjoy each other’s friendship, both see the other as a true hero.

“He’s just the name,” said Steven Vega of his son. “I picked that name and it fit. Cause he conquered school like a gladiator and he’s still doing it.”