Empowering Student Voice with Rep. Jimmy Gomez

When Class of 2021 graduate Nyslai Bolaños was accepted to Wellesley College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she knew she deserved it. But everything changed just two months into the fall semester.

“I was used to being around people who looked like me, who came from similar backgrounds and were first-gen,” Nyslai said. “Going to a school where you’re around wealthy people was really difficult. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like a failure.”

It wasn’t until she began having monthly check-ins with her GEAR UP 4 LA advisor, who praised her for her hard work and accomplishments, that her mindset shifted.

“Whenever I look around, I remind myself that I deserve to be here, and I’m paving the way for other first-generation Latinos.”

Nyslai Bolaños, UCLA Community School graduate

Nysali was one of several current and former GEAR UP students to share their #GEARUPworks stories during a Dec. 18 roundtable with Congressman Jimmy Gomez, who represents several GU4LA schools in Congressional District 34.

“There’s always this pressure that you don’t come from money, the right background, upbringing, whatever it is,” Gomez said. “All you need to do is believe and then work at accomplishing your goal. If you think about it, you’re beating the odds as you speak.”

The roundtable, held at Occidental College, allowed students to share how – through their resilience and with the support of GU4LA staff – they overcame challenges to pursue personal and academic growth and success.

“I was hesitant to join GEAR UP at first,” said Brenda Rivas, a sophomore at New Open World Academy who described herself as deeply shy, quiet, and reserved until the GU4LA team encouraged her to join the peer mentor program.

“They helped me find myself and for that I am grateful,” Rivas said.

For Ahamed Bermudez, a Class of 2020 West Adams Prep graduate, GU4LA supported his venture as a leader in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

“If it wasn’t for that experience, I would have never known what I wanted to pursue with my life and career,” said Ahamed, who is pursuing an associate in political science and public policy. “It was one of the first biggest milestones in my life and I will forever be grateful for it.”

With the encouragement of her GU4LA advisors, Belmont High School sophomore Andrea Mejia joined GEAR UP’s Jaime Escalante Math and peer mentor programs.

GEAR UP has helped me and supported me with every decision I’ve made. I feel like my hard work is finally starting to pay off.

Andrea Mejia, GU4LA Class of 2024

Gomez – who admits he wasn’t the best student, had no plans for college, and worked to get by before earning a Ph.D. from Harvard – encouraged GU4LA students and alumni to take risks, challenge themselves, and refuse to be confined.

“College wasn’t in my original plans. But after working double shifts just to get by, I enrolled in community college to change my path,” Gomez said. “Thank you GEAR UP 4 LA for inviting me to share my story with students and expand the idea of what is possible for our next generation of leaders.”

Additional roundtable participants included:

  • Ashley Aragon, Class of 2011, Franklin High School
  • Terran Artis, Class of 2017, Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts
  • Jennifer Cruz, Class of 2020, West Adams Prep
  • Paola Flores-Sanchez, Class of 2020, West Adams Preparatory High School
  • Nubia Menchaca, Class of 2011, Franklin High School
  • Jaquelyn Perez, Class of 2024, Roybal Learning Center
  • Syrabi Rahman, Class of 2024, Ambassador School of Global Leadership at RFK
  • William Ruiz, Class of 2011, Franklin High School (roundtable moderator)
  • Brandon Santamaria, Class of 2024, Roybal Learning Center