MVLA Scholars program supports students’ independent projects

Victor Ruiz, a junior at UC Berkeley who has received scholarships and mentoring from the MVLA Scholars program since he began college, is one of 10 students to receive a supplemental scholarship for completing an independent study project this summer.

A Los Altos High school graduate majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and minoring in bioengineering, Ruiz independently researched TP53 mutations in high-grade serous ovarian cancer.

“There’s no organization that created an internship for (the scholars) to go work at, this is simply the student, him or herself, identifying an academically relevant project that they want to do over the summer,” said Bruce McFarlane, MVLA Scholars board member and supplemental scholarships program co-director.

After planning to return as a summer intern at Garden Health, a cancer research company in Redwood City, Ruiz – like many other MVLA Scholars recipients – had to pivot due to restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

MVLA Scholars’ independent study scholarship program offered to financially support recipients as they still gained viable work experience.

“(MVLA Scholars) has been a really huge part of basically allowing me to focus on school a lot more than focusing on paying bills,” Ruiz said. “It’s definitely helped me cut back on my hours at work and be able to spend more time actually getting (school) work done.”

Launched by a Los Altos family looking to start a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships for students in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, MVLA Scholars has grown into “quite an impressive organization,” McFarlane said.

The program has given away more than $4 million in scholarships over the past 20 years, and 160 recipients are currently in college.

The original supplemental scholarship program for unpaid and underpaid internships began in 2014 and the independent study project scholarships only started this summer.

“It was recognizing that what was going to be a normal summer in terms of internships paid and unpaid was not going to happen,” MVLA Scholars co-director Dee Gibson said. “It was sort of born out of necessity.”

She added that many of the scholars’ parents are essential workers or they live in close quarters with several younger siblings who are trying to do online classes at the same time. Ruiz said he moved to an apartment in Berkeley because at home he would have to share a room with his three younger brothers while taking Zoom classes and studying.

“Their life has really been not only turned upside down in terms of school, but the economics of their families and their family responsibilities and issues have changed a lot,” Gibson said.

MVLA Scholars co-director Janet Tornow noted that the nonprofit organization has done everything it can to help.

“We’re really looking to really help (our scholars) the absolute most,” she said.

Tornow added that funding independent study projects is “really unique and really proactive.”

“(The independent study projects) are all different,” she said. “And I think the main thing is the students all came up with their own ideas, and they all seem really enthusiastic about it.”

New opportunities

Along with Ruiz’s research on ovarian cancer, projects included fashion merchandising, social media marketing and learning effective ways to teach elementary school kids online.

Nanami Narusawa, an MVLA scholar, started tutoring seven elementary school students in math after she wasn’t able to return to her job teaching ballet classes at a studio. She began virtually tutoring in June and received a supplemental scholarship for her project.

“I definitely was thinking about tutoring students (and) I was trying to find a way to continue to educate myself,” Narusawa said, “but I think that MVLA Scholars really pushed me to kind of think outside the box.”

Narusawa, who aspires to be an elementary school teacher, said the tutoring project allowed her to gain relevant experience.

“I was able to enhance my skills in tutoring,” she said, “and I’ve never tutored virtually before, so I was able to kind of learn how to work with Zoom and … keep them motivated through the lessons.”

With most of the scholars’ colleges switching to online learning this semester, Gibson said their college experience “changed dramatically almost overnight.”

That, however, does not mean the experience is any less valuable.

“Our students’ lives are changing, and they’re changing the life of their entire family, the economics and the recognition that there are more possibilities,” Gibson said.

Narusawa recognizes the value as well.

“Even though there’s a lot of negative aspects to (the pandemic), I think MVLA Scholars was able to provide us with a new opportunity and they will still continue to push us to be better regardless of the circumstances,” she said. “So I am very happy that I can be part of this journey.”

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