Student Michael Piña makes college a reality for Central Valley teens

Michael Piña, a UC Berkeley senior who is president and founder of Central Valley Scholars. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally.)

Campus videographer Stephen McNally, who is profiling students and alumni for UC Berkeley’s Light the Way: The Campaign for Berkeley, journeyed to the Central Valley earlier this summer to spend a day with Michael Piña, a Berkeley student who McNally calls “an unstoppable force.” Growing up in the small Fresno County town of Kernan, Piña, who self-identifies as queer and prefers the pronoun “she,” suffered abuse from family, local youth and a Catholic priest who, at a church retreat, she said, decided to perform an exorcism to get Piña to change who she was.

Today, in addition to being a sociology major and fourth-year student at Berkeley, Piña is president and founder of Central Valley Scholars, a nonprofit group that helps underserved and oppressed teens in the valley to strive to attend top four-year universities like Berkeley.

“She was able to pull together so many resources to create Central Valley Scholars and to have a real impact on so many students who otherwise would’ve been overlooked,” said McNally. “What surprised me was just how generous she is  — I expected her to be generous, but this is next level!

“Despite a life of antagonistic community forces, she worked hard to become valedictorian (in high school) and be admitted into Berkeley. Yet, she still considers herself privileged to be where she is in life. She’s working hard to use that privilege to acknowledge the value in every person’s identity that her organization touches by lifting them up toward higher education.”

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