Four years ago, Erica Cortez graduated from John C. Fremont High School and was a Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds scholarship recipient.
While in high school Cortez participated in the financial aid workshops, college counseling sessions and any other life skills or mentoring opportunities the program offered. She also received a little financial support during her first year at Occidental College. But what has been most helpful is the emotional support she has received from Children’s Defense Fund-California staff throughout her college experience.
“I’ve gotten other scholarships and been in other programs and none of them really care like CDF-CA,” said Erica, 22. “They just give you money and that’s it. But that doesn’t really help you in the long run. They have mentored me on what I should do and the best route to take in my life.”
That mentorship led her to Mexico this summer to study bacteria to support conservation efforts through a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program with Northern Illinois University funded by the National Science Foundation. Specifically, Erica looked at how much a specific toxin is impacting sinkholes on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. She will continue studying potential impacts as these are sinkholes that tourists are now swimming in and locals use for drinking, cooking, bathing and other every day uses. She will be returning to the country in January to complete and publish her research.
“Erica has demonstrated the strength it takes to beat the odds not only in arriving to college, but especially through the process of navigating her bachelor’s degree—particularly as a biology major,” said Angelica Salazar, CDF-CA’s director of education equity one of several staff who have worked closely with Erica since she entered the CDF Beat the Odds program at 16.
“We will continue to be here to mentor and support her as she transitions successfully from college to career. We especially need her to lead us and teach us about how to protect the planet.”
Erica has one semester left at Occidental and then she plans to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees; and she expects to continue to rely on the staff at CDF-CA which she now considers more like family.