Living in an urban, diverse and often underserved community, Yajaira Nuñez faced challenges in creating and pursuing a vision for her future. Her family’s unstable home life and the need to care for her younger brother left her with little opportunity to focus on her own goals.
Her grade-point average was not very strong but she was selected to participate in Ocean Discovery Institute’s programs in 2009. The opportunity to participate in research in the Sea of Cortez through the nonprofit program sparked her interest and inspired her to achieve a 3.75 GPA in her senior year at Hoover High School in the diverse City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.
Nuñez knew attending a four-year university and receiving the financial aid she needed would be a challenge at a time when many institutions are under severe financial pressures. But Wednesday she will begin college at the University of San Diego as the school’s first Ocean Leader Scholar.
She will be supported through her four years at USD, receiving tuition and housing along with assistance through the Marine Sciences and Environmental Studies Department. This summer, she participated in the university’s Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) program on wetlands restoration in the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” Nuñez said. “I believe I was meant to pursue marine biology.”
Nuñez is just one success story from a unique partnership between the nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute and USD to help change the face of science in San Diego by providing opportunities for young women and students of color. Across the nation, only six out of 10 public high school students will attend a four-year college and at Nuñez’ high school fewer than three out of 10 students go on to higher education. But 80 percent of the 31 students in the Ocean Leaders program between 2008 and 2010 have enrolled in a four-year university and all have continued their education after high school. Perhaps even more exciting is that a remarkable 75 percent of Ocean Leader students have selected college majors in the science and conservation fields.
Through Ocean Discovery Institute, Nuñez spent five weeks this summer in Baja California studying the effects of climate change on wetlands. In August, she and other students presented their work to a group of San Diego executives, professors and public officials at USD.
Funding for the USD Ocean Leader Scholarship is being provided by USD and, in part, from a broader $435,000 grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Drew Talley, assistant professor in USD’s department of Marine Science and Environmental Studies, and Ocean Discovery Institute.
“Increasing diversity, particularly in the scientific fields, is a priority for USD, and the National Science Foundation’s support will dramatically strengthen our contribution to meet this national need,” Talley said. “The USD Ocean Leader Scholarship will become a cornerstone in these efforts and we believe Yajaira Nuñez will be a model for others.”
Travis Kemnitz, director of Student Relations for Ocean Discovery Institute agreed. Nuñez “immersed herself in every opportunity we offer to support students to achieve academically and prepare for college. She is an example of what young people are capable of when engaged and empowered to make a difference in their lives.”
— Liz Harman