HANFORD — Hanford native Aaron Brieno read a 2014 Sentinel article titled “County makes least-educated cities report,” and was shocked to read that the Hanford-Corcoran area was ranked fifth in a list of the top 10 least educated cities in America, according to Delaware-based financial news company 24/7 Wall St.
“After reading the article I remember thinking, ‘someone should really do something about this’,” Brieno said. “This story lingered with me for years and last summer, I told myself, ‘you should do something about it’.”
Thus, Brieno created Inspire California.
Inspire California is a community-based organization that seeks to provide comprehensive college preparatory counseling, professional development and mentoring opportunities to high school students in the Central Valley.
Due to its newness, the first year of the program will focus only on Hanford-area students in grades 9-12, but Brieno said he would like to expand the program in the years to come.
This year’s program will run July 24-28, and take place on the Hanford West High School campus. The program will run from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include guest speakers and workshops every day.
Brieno has already gotten a few well-known local figures to participate, including Assemblymember Rudy Salas and former Hanford High School graduate, Joseph I. Castro, President of California State University, Fresno.
"Inspire California is an important new initiative because it will help prepare talented youth to be future leaders in Hanford and beyond," Castro said. "As a Hanford native and the first Fresno State president born in the Valley, I will encourage the students to dream big, be bold and develop strong relationships with their family and friends."
Students in the program will have the opportunity to tour Fresno State and listen to a speech from Castro on July 28. During the course of the program, Brieno said students will also get to meet admissions officers from both Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University.
Part of the program Brieno wants to focus on is the college application process and steps to get into college. He said sometimes students do not know that college is an option because they don’t get that push from home or don’t have the confidence in their grades; he wants to be that push and instill confidence in the students.
According to that 2014 report, only 12.9 percent of residents in the Kings County area had a bachelor’s degree or higher — much lower than the 29 percent U.S. average — and those with master’s degrees made up less than 4 percent of the population in the county in 2013.
To show the students that college is always an option for them, Brieno has gathered 15 former Hanford High and Hanford West graduates to meet with the students, many of whom are young, educated professionals from diverse ethnic backgrounds and who work in different industries.
The goal of the program is to give the students firsthand accounts and experiences of what life after high school can be like. The application for the program will gauge students’ career interests to try to tailor the program to the students, Brieno said.
Students will get overviews of careers from people working in those particular industries, and will get to ask questions and really engage with their mentors, Brieno said. They will also learn how to create resumes and draft personal statements.
Ruben Amavisca, Hanford West’s Career Education Coordinator, said when Brieno came to him with the idea for the program, he thought it was a great idea and something he wanted to do, but just didn’t have the time.
He said he hopes the program will inspire students to continue their education by going above-and-beyond what they thought they could do. He said he wants to see students go out and experience life and gain knowledge, and bring those experiences and knowledge back to Hanford to help the community.
Brieno graduated from Hanford West High School in 2003 and attended Santa Monica City College. From there, he transferred to Chapman University, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership.
After he completed his undergraduate studies, he was admitted to the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law where he obtained his juris doctor degree in 2014. He passed the California Bar Exam in 2015 and briefly practiced employment discrimination law with a small Sacramento nonprofit before being accepted into the Senate Fellowship program.
He currently works for the California Legislature in the office of California State Senator Ben Hueso (D-San Diego). As a legislative aide for Senator Hueso, Brieno works on policy issues such as education, health and human services and economic development.
Brieno said working in the legislature has given him the opportunity to develop legislation directly affecting education in California. While researching issues relating to education in the legislature, he said he has become keenly aware of the importance a higher education in today's economy.
To date, Brieno has solely funded Inspire California and has not actively sought donations; however, if this summer's program is a success, he said he will actively start seeking donations to expand the program to other Central Valley communities.
Brieno said around 30-40 students will be able to participate in the program. There is no cost for the program and includes lunch provided to the students.