Without the help of financial aid, it’s hard for Maria Manjarrez to imagine going to college.
Raised in a working-class Mexican immigrant family, she watched her parents toil long hours as janitors across Los Angeles to support her and her sister. As a first-generation college student, she applied to schools on her own.
Manjarrez, a junior at USC, was appointed this month by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Student Aid Commission, the agency charged with supplying aid to vocational schools and public and private universities across the state. Manjarrez was nominated after going to Sacramento to lobby for Cal Grants with USC’s Office of Financial Aid.
“The Cal Grant really levels the playing field … so I can go to a prestigious school like USC like anyone else,” she said. “It gives me that financial resource to not have to worry what I’m going to eat the next day, if I’m going to have books for next semester – it’s that safety net that’s allowed me to pursue a lot of the passions and interests I have.”
Manjarrez is also a USC Norman Topping Scholar, the beneficiary of a financial aid and mentoring program for first-generation and low-income students supported by the student body.
Until she graduates, which is when her term on the student aid commission ends, she’ll juggle her time at USC with trips to Sacramento for meetings on financial aid policy.
Dejected by rejections
While getting more Californians into college is a priority, so is helping students who might feel ill-equipped, she said. Offering remedial education is important, something the legislature is pushing for, since not all high school experiences are the same, she said.
Manjarrez transferred to USC from Pasadena City College. She remembers feeling dejected after rejections, including from USC, during her senior year in high school, but she wouldn’t let that stop her.
“USC has always been my dream school,” she said.
In high school, she found a mentor at USC, meeting Dan Schnur of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism during the Young Women’s Political and Civic Leadership Conference hosted by USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. Schnur, a former communications director for Sen. John McCain, was the institute’s director.
Manjarrez kept in touch with him and pushed hard at her studies. She took a full course load at school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and did some babysitting at night after her mom had to reduce work hours for health reasons.
When it came time to apply again, Schnur wrote Manjarrez a letter of recommendation. And the rest is history.
Lending a helping hand
At USC, she’s continued to pursue her interest in politics and public policy. She has researched homelessness on Skid Row, interned for U.S. Rep. Ted W. Lieu and spent last summer working at a political consulting firm in New York, the latter possible due to the Diana Chudacoff Levin Internship Award at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“Because of the Cal Grant and the aid USC has given me, I don’t have to work. I’m able to focus on internships and professional development,” she said.
She hopes to help other students like herself get the helping hand they need.
“My goal being on this commission is to be a part of that effort to make higher education more accessible to our students — because it was accessible to me I want to pay it forward and make it accessible to everyone else as well,” she said.