Anayeli Zavala knew when she was 9 years old that she would one day go to college, even though no one from her family had ever earned a four-year degree.
“I knew that I had to get good grades — straight A’s — and I made that my focus,” says Zavala, who graduated from Desert Hot Springs High School in the top 5 percent of her class.
Armed with an acceptance letter and $5,000 she had cobbled together while working at Bank of America during her senior year, Zavala headed for University of California, Irvine to pursue a psychology degree. “I had saved up that money, and I thought, ‘OK, I’m ready to go,’” she recalls. “But I knew nothing about the cost of living in Orange County. In fact, I knew nothing about going to college.”
Without a mentor or qualified counselor to help her prepare financially for a four-year university, Zavala was soon out of money. She returned to the Coachella Valley and took her general education classes at College of the Desert. Not long after that she heard about — and applied for — a scholarship offered through the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership. Zavala received enough funding through CVEP, its matching partners, and other financial aid to graduate debt-free from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Now 25, Zavala works as a coordinator for a CVEP program linking education with real-life opportunities in the Coachella Valley job market.
The Master Plan
In 2012, CVEP rallied the region’s public K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and businesses around the Coachella Valley Regional Plan for College and Career Readiness, aligning the region’s education programs with its workforce needs.
The five-year plan outlines how a partnership between business and education can develop and sustain career pathways for more than 71,000 students in Coachella Valley’s three K-12 school districts. At the core of the program are industry-specific career academies — schools within schools — specializing in digital arts, renewable energy, healthcare, and other fields. Students learn about careers in and out of the classroom, and have opportunities to job shadow and intern to gain on-the-job training.
The plan’s goals include enrolling roughly one-third of the region’s high school students into career-oriented programs, increasing high school and college graduation rates, and securing an endowment of $1 million annually for college scholarships to qualified students.
At the heart of the initiative is building and maintaining a college-bound culture in the Coachella Valley. For years, students at two of the Coachella Valley’s three school districts performed below California’s average academically, which resulted in a higher number of adults without a high school diploma and a lower number of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to CVEP data.
“We knew in this region there were low college-attendance and college-completion rates and we recognized the importance of changing that by producing educated workers who could fill higher-paying jobs,” says Sheila Thornton, CVEP vice president of Workforce Excellence. As the initiative gained traction, new opportunities brought hope into the lives of many underserved Coachella Valley students.
Jeffrey Salas-Arellano has his sights set on becoming a doctor, but the 19-year-old Cathedral City High School graduate and COD sophomore wasn’t always aiming so high. “Before I was introduced to the Regional Plan for College and Career Readiness, I didn’t have any true educational or career goals,” he says. After learning about CVEP through HEAL (Health Environmental Academy of Learning) at his high school, he began taking his education seriously.
Salas-Arellano is currently interning at JFK Memorial Hospital in the Nursing Administration Department and looks forward to attending California State University, San Bernardino–Palm Desert Campus after he earns his A.S. degree. “Now I am planning to go all the way,” he says, citing job shadowing, a CVEP scholarship, and his mentor, Dr. Jonathan Lorenzo Yorba, as greatly influencing his career choice. Of Dr. Yorba, Salas-Arellano says, “He helped me shape my future by motivating me to earn my doctorate degree. It is a title no one can take away from you.”
Because of the programs and services offered through CVEP, Katerin Vasquez saw beyond a paycheck-to-paycheck life. “I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do until I actually got into the [Healthcare] academy,” Vasquez recalls. “During a community day with Flying Doctors, I was up and down helping people, and I really enjoyed doing that. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a physician.”
Last year, Vasquez applied to CVEP’s Emerging Health Professionals, a program where students explore different career opportunities, showcase their professional aspirations, and share their research with younger health academy students.
And Anayeli Zavala coordinates this program.