The Avalos Foundation is more than a Scholarship
● By Melissa Mendonca
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos of Ramiro Castellón, UC Davis, Class of 2018 and Lily Fryer, UCLA, Class of 2018
IN 2014, RAMIRO CASTELLON was a senior at Los Molinos High School treating scholarship attainment as a part-time job. He kept a binder for this project adorned with the logo of UC Davis, hoping his Aggie spirit and work ethic would be enough to meet the financial obligations of his dream campus.
Heeding the call of his school counselor, Castellón took note of a scholarship announcement from the Avalos Foundation, the passion project of Arnoldo and Alma-Ruth Avalos, graduates of high schools in Gridley and Chico, who went on to receive undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley and advanced degrees from Harvard and Cal State East Bay.
“Initially when I applied to it, all I saw was money. I saw $1,000 a year to go to school,” says Castellón. “I soon came to realize it was so much more.”
This past June, Castellón walked across the commencement stage at UC Davis with his bachelor of science degree in international agriculture development. “Here I am four years later, a college graduate with no debt,” he says, his voice layered with pride, awe and gratitude.
Now settled into a well-paying job at Driscoll's in Watsonville, Castellón speaks reverently of the impact the Avalos Foundation has had on his life. “Arnoldo is quite literally a role model that we can all aspire to be someday,” says Castellón. “He opened doors that I never would have been able to access on my own.”
Indeed, opening doors is what the Avalos Foundation is all about. “It started as a scholarship program, but it has transitioned to a life program,” says Arnoldo. “For us, the money is just a small part of what we’re trying to help students with. Ultimately, it’s about guiding them through college.”
Both Arnoldo and Alma-Ruth are from immigrant families, with Arnoldo growing up in a migrant farmworking household in Gridley and Alma-Ruth receiving most of her early education in Mexico, arriving for her junior year of high school in Chico as an English language learner. They both see education as a great equalizer, and have committed to supporting the educational goals of other young people from small North State communities through their foundation.
“We’re creating a cycle of change,” says Arnoldo, noting that the foundation seeks first-generation college students from a select region of Northern California bound for University of California schools with a family income of $90,000 or less. Students must exhibit a desire to give back to their home communities. “We look at our efforts as a way to empower a region by focusing on education,” he adds. “When you grow up in a small town you can limit yourself.”
For both Arnoldo and Alma-Ruth, education allowed for upward social mobility. Arnoldo’s degrees landed him jobs at Cisco Systems, Google and ultimately Facebook, where he came on board when the company had fewer than 500 employees. He is now retired. Alma-Ruth continues her career in education.
Lily Fryer, 21, of Dairyville is another recipient of the Avalos Foundation scholarship, and notes that the networking offered through the foundation set in motion a series of fellowships that have sent her to Washington, DC, as a Rangel Fellow with the U.S. State Department and Princeton University on a public policy and international affairs fellowship. This fall, she will start a masters program in development practice at UC Berkeley. A career in the foreign service is her ultimate goal. She graduated this year from UCLA with degrees in international development studies and geography and environmental studies, and she was a 2014 graduate of Red Bluff High School.
“If anyone’s interested in a field, he really tries to reach out and find someone he knows,” says Fryer, noting that she learned of both fellowships from Avalos. Not only that, he wrote her letters of recommendation. She says she worried about overburdening him with requests for letters since she applied to 14 graduate programs. “He just messaged me and said, ‘Bring it. Of course!’” she laughs.
While Arnoldo is clearly proud of both Castellón and Fryer, they are two of 75 ushered through the Foundation since its inception in 2012. His goal is to support around 20 students a year and ultimately reach 100 fellows. He stresses that his opportunity is available to all, regardless of ethnicity. “People that helped me didn’t look like me – my teachers, my athletic coaches. That’s just how it was,” he says.
It’s no surprise, then, that Lily Fryer mentions another lesson imparted by Avalos throughout her four years: “He stresses that it’s important to give back and acknowledge where you came from.” •