From WHCL to Advanced Degrees: West Hills Alumni Show the Power of Belief

When do you realize your potential? For many college students, there is a light bulb moment of flashing clarity, that moment when they realize what they want to do with their lives. Thanks to West Hills College Lemoore, two WHCL alumni had their light bulb moments and have since gone on to great success.

Learning to Fly: Matthew Warren
Matthew Warren was in the middle of a science conference in Kansas City, Missouri, when he first realized his potential.

He was attending the event through a USDA grant West Hills College Lemoore received during his third year at West Hills College Lemoore.

“It was one of the strongest catalysts of my life,” the 2011 West Hills alumnus said. “When I got there, I realized there was so much I could learn. I was someone from the small world of the San Joaquin Valley and was thrown into a place with professionals doing science who can speak to large audiences. I saw that these were possibilities of what I could become.”
Now, Warren is slated to graduate in May from North Carolina State University with a Ph.D. 
His journey is unique and impressive, but not unusual. West Hills’ impact has a long reach. For many alumni, a West Hills education was as much about textbooks as it was about life lessons.

Earning two associate’s degrees at West Hills laid the foundation for his future by stoking his interest in science and teaching.

“It’s been quite an extraordinary journey,” he said .

“West Hills exposed me to the world of higher education. I was also given the chance to be a college tutor, which gave me teaching experience, and I realized I liked it. Another thing I learned was understanding all the aspects involved with being a leader, which is one of the strongest things West Hills gave me.”
Warren came to West Hills in August 2008. He chose the college because it was close to home, and he thought it would be a good place to develop as student. What he received, however, was far more than that.

His love for the college that inspired him runs deep. He regularly returns to talk with students and encourage their development, said West Hills College Lemoore President Kristin Clark.

“Since he graduated, he’s been back to speak to students on the importance of pursuing their dreams through education,” Clark said. “His passion for science and his drive to solve real-world problems in agriculture inspires us all, but especially students. The last time he came to speak to students on campus, you could have heard a pin drop when he told them about his doctoral research and what he hoped to accomplish.”

For Warren, the back-to-school talks are about imparting lessons to the community that taught him so much.
“I love their motto: ‘Once you go here, you can go anywhere,’” he said. “That really resonates with someone like myself. I went because I love learning, and it brought me to the realization that there’s a whole world out there — and I have chance to make my own mark.”
Coast to Coast: Julian Ponce
Julian Ponce’s journey took him from the rural town of Avenal, California, to the Ivy League — an incredible journey for a first-generation student — thanks to a lot of hard work and a bit of guidance from West Hills College Lemoore’s Upward Bound Program.

A master’s student at Columbia University, Ponce completed his undergraduate education at the University of California at Berkeley. He's gone from small town to prestige.

“What the Upward Bound Program offered me was exposure to different types of universities and college campuses,” Ponce says. “I think the mentorship from the program director, Oscar Villareal, was crucial in my path to college. He encouraged me to apply for the Ivy League Project, which I never would have known about without him, and that showed me what life could be like at these East Coast universities and expanded my goals to more than just what’s in California.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Ponce sees his journey from rural California to New York City as a benefit, not a hindrance, to success.

“Especially now that I’m at a master's level, there are so few people here who have the same skill set I do, thanks to my upbringing,” he said. “No matter what public health program I go into, they’re going to talk about disparities, like those in poorer communities with less access to medical care and education. It’s so empowering to have grown up in one of those communities and have firsthand experience. A lot of my peers who have more privileged backgrounds don’t have that, so I’m able to see things they don’t.”

Ponce is especially interested in public health’s Latino paradox. Against all odds, Latino immigrants to the United States have the best health outcomes out of all Americans, despite lower socioeconomic status. He wants to understand why that’s true — or if it is. There’s a chance that public health researchers have overlooked or misrepresented some vital aspects of the community, Ponce said.
Upward Bound is a motivational program that introduces high school students to college life, and provides them with support to succeed there. Students also take classes at WHCL while in high school and get tutoring and college application help, ranging from one on one advice to college tours. With Villareal’s help, Ponce applied for and received a Gates Millennium Scholarship — one of only 1,000 students nationally to get the honor. The scholarship pays for minority students to attend undergraduate and graduate programs. Over 10 years, Ponce will have received almost half a million dollars for his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia University.

“He is a great success story,” said Oscar Villareal, WHCL Director of Upward Bound. “It goes to show that we are surrounded by exemplary students who have the potential to go far in life.”
“I see how little minority representation there is in spaces in the Ivy League,” he said. “The reason there are no students who look like me here isn’t because they’re not able to qualify, but because of the disparities that exist and the lack of resources that minority students have. I’ve taken these things as strengths for me. I’m super thankful for Upward Bound because high school was such a crucial time period, especially for first-generation students.”

He added that Upward Bound, in many ways, completely changed his trajectory.
“I look back and think none of this would’ve been possible if, at that crucial stage in my life, I didn’t have Upward Bound exposing me to new opportunities and believing in me,” he added. “During high school was when my mother passed away. My life could’ve gone another way very easily, but luckily, I had a really strong support system that believed in me. Because of that, I was able to use that experience to empower myself.”