Growing up in Boyle Heights, Jerylee Perez didn’t see many people who looked like her going to college.
As a woman of color and domestic abuse survivor raised by a single mother, she didn’t see a future past a middle school education. Now, as a graduating high school senior about to start at the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall, Perez wants to tell stories from her community to challenge not only those stereotypes that people have of Boyle Heights, but that people within the neighborhood have of themselves.
“Even though society sees people of color a certain way, I want to challenge that idea and show them that there’s beauty in struggle and there’s beauty in living in Boyle Heights,” Perez said, sitting down at her kitchen table on a recent afternoon.
The 18-year-old was recently selected as one of 15 recipients of the 2019 Dave Goldberg Scholarship, which provides financial support and mentorship for high school seniors graduating from the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, a network of dozens of charter schools across the country.
Perez was chosen from among 290 applicants nationwide for the scholarship’s second class since its founding in 2017 by the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. She sees the scholarship as an opportunity to invest in her education, but also in her Boyle Heights community.
“I want to keep helping out my community when I go to UCLA,” Perez said. “When I have my communications degree, I can tell the stories of people who are not able to tell their stories (themselves).”
Perez attributes much of her dedication to attaining a higher education to her time at KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory School, a charter middle school on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights. There, Perez said, she found a community of teachers and peers who urged her to challenge the mindset that college was unattainable.
“There’s people who look like you — who share the same culture, same language, same last name — who are writers, who are teachers, who are doctors, and they’re going to college,” Perez said. “That changed my whole view in pursuing a higher education.”
Perez said that after she entered high school, she relied on a counselor provided by the KIPP Through College Program to help her navigate the college application process, read over her essays and look for scholarship options.
“Being a first-generation student, it was very hard for me,” Perez said. “I would cry a lot, I was very stressed out. I was emotionally and mentally distant because I was always focusing on (what I had to do) but I didn’t know how.”
Perez ended up applying to 12 colleges, and chose UCLA because of its proximity to home as well as the financial aid package.
“I was jumping, crying when I first knew that she was accepted,” Perez’ mother said, adding that she hopes Perez’ two younger brothers will follow in her footsteps.
At UCLA, Perez will major in communication, and hopes to continue the work in photojournalism that she started in high school as a member of the nonprofit Las Fotos Project, where she worked with other teenage girls to spotlight migrant mothers in the Boyle Heights community through art and photography. She helped Las Fotos design a mural featuring a photo of her own mother, who immigrated from Mexico in 1997.
“I want to be a journalist and focus on the stories of low-income people, people of color — social justice,” Perez said. “I want to reach out to my community organizations and tell their stories through journalism.”
Though Perez is exploring different media for telling stories, she ultimately hopes to focus on writing, a form she’s already worked with throughout middle and high school. She cited her senior AP Literature teacher as a strong influence in her decision to pursue communication. The teacher encouraged her to present a spoken word poem in front of her class.
“It was about being a domestic abuse survivor but also growing and not letting those obstacles push me back,” Perez said. “I was proud because usually I don’t open up to people my age like that, but through writing I felt so powerful. I felt like I was able to talk about anything.”
Photo by Diana Kruzman.