Melanie Mena Hard-working daughter of immigrants receives CSU Trustees Award


By Andrea Valadez

For many years, Melanie Mena did not think going to college was an option for her, so she was prepared to make her way as a “starving artist.” Now, in her fourth year at California State University, Monterey Bay, she has received the highest honor a CSU student can: the CSU Trustees Award.

Growing up in Gilroy as the daughter of immigrant parents who spoke no English, Mena is no stranger to overcoming hardships. By the age of 9, she had moved 15 times, living with friends or family who could take her family in at the time.

This unstable upbringing resulted in a “lack of confidence in the way I present myself,” said Mena. “It’s definitely something I’m working on, but I would say through scholarships like (the CSU Trustees Award) I’m able to realize that I do have value.”

The CSU Trustees Award honors a handful of CSU students for their outstanding achievement in academic performance, personal accomplishment and community service. The award consists of a $7,000 scholarship and an invitation to a formal award ceremony in Long Beach.

“I didn’t even know the award amount when I applied,” said Mena. “I didn’t know what I actually received until after the ceremony. I was just like, ‘Oh, they’re highlighting me for having academic success.’”

Being recognized by the CSU has helped Mena realize that “there are things that I’m doing that are powerful and have an impact on the people around me.”

Mena is also a Pay It Forward scholarship recipient, which is a main reason why she has been able to attend CSUMB as a Visual and Public Art major.

“The only way I was going to go to school was if I got that (Pay It Forward) scholarship because it was going to cover almost everything. Otherwise, I probably was going to try to go into art and see how I would survive off of that,” said Mena.

Pay It Forward provides low-income and first-generation college students with a $20,000 scholarship throughout their four-year education. Recipients also benefit from a mentoring program where they have the ability to work closely with professionals in their desired field, as well as mentor a younger student, in the spirit of paying it forward.

The Visual and Public Art major is another part of CSUMB Mena holds dear.

“There’s a pretty strong community in the VPA department even though it’s small. I feel like I know everyone here,” said Mena.

“I think it’s so fun to connect with my teachers. It makes going to class not a challenge …  It was a really good choice to come to CSUMB. I’m not sure I’d be where I am now if I didn’t,” she said.

On top of a rigorous course load, Mena also works four jobs.

As the project manager for Arts Habitat in Monterey County, Mena is responsible for “getting the community together and participating and showing their art,” she said. “We do anything from providing resources (for artists), to spotlights on artists around here. I’m specifically in charge of the annual artist studio tour,” said Mena.

Mena is also proud to have volunteered at the 2021 You Will Rise Project, an anti-bullying art workshop. You Will Rise provides students who have experienced bullying with an outlet through art.

She will graduate in the spring semester and is applying to San Jose State University’s guidance and counseling master’s degree program. She plans to become a guidance counselor for high school students.

“I’ve kind of pivoted from being an art teacher to helping with deeper issues in students because I felt that had more of an impact on me,” she said.

“I think (first-generation students) tend to doubt ourselves so much and it stops us from doing things that we want,” said Mena. “But just work hard and believe that you can do what you want because five years ago, maybe even two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed I’d be here today or have any career.

“There’s this intrinsic ability in me to just be like, ‘yeah, I want that. So I’m going to go get it.’”

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Andrea Valadez

About Andrea Valadez

Andrea Valadez was born and raised on the outskirts of Los Angeles and is now a journalism student at Cal State Monterey Bay. She’s the current editor-in-chief of the school’s student-run newspaper, The Lutrinae.