Maria Toloza-Meza struggled to find a purpose within education until she arrived on campus at Highline College in 2014. Now, she is the face of the college’s new Puente Program. JEROD YOUNG, the Mirror

Highline’s Puente Program aims to build bridge for disadvantaged students

Maria Toloza-Meza has waited for this opportunity for a long time.

When the Federal Way resident was going through the education system, she needed someone to take her under their wing and give her the encouragement to achieve in school.

Without that support, she dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. Toloza-Meza said this is a struggle all too common within underprivileged Latino communities. Through the help of Highline College, however, not only did she get her high school diploma in 2016, Toloza-Meza yearned for more learning.

She set her sights on a bachelors degree in criminal justice. Toloza-Meza is more confident than ever she will have the support to make this dream come true thanks to Highline’s new Puente Program, which helps educationally disadvantaged students through intensive academic counseling and mentoring.

The program officially begins on campus this fall. The word “puente” is Spanish for bridge, and this is one bridge Toloza-Meza has been waiting for since childhood.

“This is my bridge … in order to achieve what I dream to achieve, which is my A.A. in criminal justice and B.A. in psychology,” Toloza-Meza said.

“This bridge has mentors, people who come from the same culture, speak the same language,” she added. “These people understand where I’ve come from and want to make a huge impact on my academic goals.”

Simply put, Toloza-Meza called the Puente Program a “life changer” for local Latino students.

The program’s inception has certainly helped her. Toloza-Meza immigrated from Mexico to Federal Way in 1997 as a young girl.

When she dropped out of school in the ninth grade, it was par for the course in her family. By 18, she had her first son. It was then Toloza-Meza felt something missing from her life.

“I was working one minimum-wage job after another,” Toloza-Meza said. “My son deserved better than that. I deserved better than that.”

She also knew her son would start school some day and would need help with his homework. Toloza-Meza did not want her son to follow the family pattern, so she enrolled in GED courses at Highline in 2014.

Toloza-Meza did not earn just a GED, though.

Once she started the process and routine of going to school, she grew familiar with the campus and staff. She even landed her current job in the Women’s Programs office.

With the help of her professors and those at her work, she was awarded her high school diploma in 2016.

“She is a lovely young woman who wants to help people and is quick to point out that she’s been helped by others on her life’s journey,” Highline College Associate Director of Communication Kari Cantey said.

Toloza-Meza could not stop learning once she started. As soon as she earned her high school diploma, she set her sights on college courses.

At first, Toloza-Meza considered joining the military. After learning she would likely have to spend long periods of time away from her two boys, however, she changed her mind.

Toloza-Meza was attracted to police work because the job and structure is similar to that of the military. She has since been involved with local law enforcement in any capacity possible, including running in the inaugural Special Olympics Run with the Cops 5k on Aug. 5.

“It’s always been so interesting to me,” Toloza-Meza said. “More importantly, becoming a police officer will allow me to help people, our state and the community that nurtured me.”

When the opportunity to sign up for the Highline College Puente Program came up earlier this year, Toloza-Meza was the first to sign up.

In the program, Toloza-Meza and other students who have stories just like hers will benefit from English classes focusing on Latin content, mentoring and leadership opportunities, student education plans, personal development courses, workshops like financial aid and university transfer requirements, and instructors trained by teachers from successful Puente colleges.

For Toloza-Meza, her educational journey is just getting started.

She plans to transfer to Central Washington University once she completes her courses at Highline. She also plans to spread the benefits and message of the Puente Program as much as can.

Toloza-Meza wants to provide opportunities to others she never had, just as a good bridge often does.

When Toloza-Mesa saw her younger brother Miguel show signs of abandoning his education, just as she once did, she brought him on campus and introduced him to the same people who helped change her life.

“People like me need that person that has more knowledge than I do, someone who sees things differently,” Toloza-Meza said. “If you have no one to guide you, you give up. I won’t do that to you, and Puente won’t either.”

For more information on the Puente Program, go to puente.highline.edu.

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