By Jennifer Mistrot and Elizabeth Cook

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — A former Students Rising Above scholar is helping newly-arrived immigrant families in the Bay Area establish themselves with an empathy gained from her own personal traumas.

READ MORE: COVID: Expert Says New Omicron Coronavirus Variant Likely Already in U.S.

Recently, Stephanie Noriega led a team meeting of Oakland Unified School District social workers and school counselors as part of the Newcomer Wellness Initiative. The program serves immigrant families and unaccompanied minors enrolling into the district for the first time by providing educational assistance and referrals for medical care, legal aid and other basic needs like food and warm coats to multiple students and families across 15 secondary school sites.

Some of the students served have experienced significant trauma.

“Gang violence, violence against women, poverty,” said Noriega of some student experiences. “All of the stuff that we know is happening.”

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

Noriega’s drive to help those affected by trauma is personal. The Bay Area native grew up in East Palo Alto in the early 90s, a violent time in the city’s history. Noriega witnessed this violence firsthand in her own neighborhood, as she also watched her hard-working immigrant parents struggle to achieve the American dream: economic stability, a safe home and education for Noriega and her siblings.

READ MORE: 2 Men Shot Outside High School Football Game in Campbell

“It was rough,” said Noriega of that time. “The area was rough. I remember my dad, he would work as a delivery manager for Pizza Hut and he would always worry about coming home late at night because he was worried about being assaulted.”

But Noriega’s old neighborhood brings back good memories, too. Her time spent at East Side College Preparatory School propelled her into college, and then onto grad school. Now, familiar landmarks like the community rec center are being re-built, leaving Noriega with conflicted feelings about gentrification in her hometown.

“If they are coming in to make it nice, but not take away what was already here,” said Noriega. “Passing on history, passing on culture … whenever something gets knocked down, I always question, ‘Is it going to be the same?'”

Those questions, along with personal experience, have given Noriega a unique insight and heart for immigrant families and others whose lives have been turned upside down, as they relocate into completely unfamiliar communities. OUSD is now serving around 3,000 newcomers this year through its various programs, including the Newcomer Initiative.

It’s change Noriega likes to see.

“I always go back to the essence of like why people are choosing to settle here,” said Noriega. “People who are settling here to be able to grow and thrive and be supported.”

MORE NEWS: Federal Court Blocks COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for California Prisons


Elizabeth Cook