Maribel Torres admits there are days when she doubts herself. 

Torres, 21, grew up the daughter of two Mexican immigrants in Napa and is first person in her family to attend college. 

“There are so many days when I think I can’t get out of bed,” Torres said. “It’s so hard being first generation. I don’t think I could do it without this support, the friends and mentors at MESA.”

Now a third-year biology student, Torres does much more than just show up at school. She is the president of MESA, or Math, Engineering, Science Achievement, a group that supports under-represented students in math and science majors in 33 community colleges throughout California. 

When it started at Napa Valley College a decade ago, MESA had 38 students. Since then, it has grown to about 100. The director, Jose Hernandez, attributes this growth to the need among under-represented students, such as Latinos, to have a place to study away from their part-time jobs and family issues.

Though Torres’ parents struggle to help her with calculus homework, she and the other MESA members form study groups and take advantage of MESA’s computer lab 7:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Lately, Torres and her friends in General Biology 120 have stayed until closing. 

The MESA members network together, seek internships and scholarships, form after-school study groups with professors and print homework free, all thanks to MESA. 

The group helps level the playing field for low-income students pursuing math, science and engineering fields, Hernandez said. And often, because children in low-income families have to work part-time jobs and help their siblings with homework, the path to success is more strenuous.

“They have to face what everyone else faces, plus the expectations at home. They need somewhere to study,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been told by our faculty that they can tell when a student is in MESA because the grades reflect it.”

Faculty members refer to MESA for more than just study groups. Antonio Castro, a physics and engineering teacher, directs even non-MESA members to the group’s office to apply for scholarships and internships. 

“A lot of times, when students want an internship, the only place they can turn to is MESA,” Castro said. 

Though the group has more than doubled in size the past 10 years, its budget has shrunk. During the best years, it received $81,500 annually from the state. Now, it receives $50,000. Hernandez keeps the group’s services thriving through affiliations with the University of California system and fundraising. 

Last Tuesday, a dozen MESA members washed campus police cars to raise money for the group. In all, they washed 10 cars and raised $150. The students squeegeed cars, laughed, squirted each other with a hose and made science jokes in a Napa Valley College parking lot. Torres told a story about how she went into a sauna and thought about how fast the heated particles were moving. 

Karla Marquez, 26, a first-year physics major, washed cars Tuesday because she has used MESA money to attend conferences, and wants to give others that same opportunity. 

The conferences and MESA “give me and others the opportunity to share our stories, as well as to grow as individuals and academics, and hopefully someday to be the professors that make the difference in other people’s lives,” Marquez said.

Torres, the MESA president, used $225 in MESA funds to attend a science conference that boosted her confidence. But in the end, it’s the friends and mentors that convince her to get out of bed in the morning and struggle through Biology 120, she said.

“They help me believe I can make it through,” Torres said.

Three weeks ago, Torres approached Hernandez with a problem. She felt overwhelmed with classes, family pressure and extracurricular leadership. Though she loves biology, she feared she might not graduate.

“He told me not to let negativity interfere,” Torres said. “My passion should surpass it.”

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