Student Receives Strauss Scholarship for Public Service Project

By Tori Mirsadjadi '12Editor-in-Chief

The Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship Foundation has announced that Berenice Villela (’12) is among the foundation’s new group of recipients. Established as a memorial to the late Don Strauss of Newport Beach, the Strauss Foundation awards up to 15 California college juniors scholarships for the amount of $10,000 annually. The scholarship funds go toward public service projects, which the students then carry out during their senior years. voice had an opportunity to talk with Berenice about her award, how she got it and what she plans to do with the funds.

Tori Mirsadjadi: What's your project? Berenice Villela: Under the guidance of the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), I will develop a curriculum with educational materials and online resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) youth and their allies, equipping youth with the language, concepts and tools to address and resolve family conflict. I will use these new materials, as well as community organizing strategies, to reach out to youth-servicing organizations such as nonprofits and universities in the San Francisco area as well as in Southern California. These publications will be complemented by family-oriented community fundraisers that will present youth with these new materials, create stronger bonds between LGBT youth and their families and raise funding and awareness for this new youth-oriented program. TM: What motivated you to apply for the Strauss scholarship? BV: I was reading Colorlines.com, an online magazine, as I always do, and I stumbled upon a Celebrate Love feature about FAP. Like a true Scrippsie, I dug around the FAP website to look for an email address. I sent in my resume, said, “LET ME WORK FOR YOU,” and got a call back a couple of weeks later! At that point, it was finding the money. The Strauss seemed like the perfect fit for what I wanted to do. I was nervous to be applying for an explicitly queer internship, but, again, in true Scripps fashion, made the plunge.

TM: What was the application process like? BV: The mission of FAP is to facilitate productive relationships between parents and their LGBT children by using research-based truth regarding culturally diverse families’ ability to embrace LGBT family members. LGBT youth whose families exhibit highly-rejecting behavior were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression and more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs or be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. With this research at hand, FAP’s work literally may mean the difference between life and death for LGBT youth. My coming out to my parents followed a pretty predictable pattern. Very few people know that I didn’t live at home the last two weeks of high school, and it took my parents a long time to come to terms with me being queer. That was almost three years ago, but just this February my dad and I finally talked about my being queer with words and in person. I call it my “it’s still ok you’re still like you know, how you ended up, you know what I mean?” conversation.

The Family Acceptance Project is SO close to home that I was both getting really excited about the internship as well as even more nervous to face rejection. It was nerve-racking but SO worth it, regardless of the outcome.

TM: Did being a Scripps student affect the way you approached the application process? BV: I approached the process with confidence. That’s something Scripps has taught me, to know how to defend myself and the things I care about. Definitely. I felt empowered to shake hands (over email) with my now boss and say “I want to help make this happen.” When I first heard back from them, I was out on Jaqua Quad studying—not at all expecting an impromptu phone interview. But that’s what it was, and it was my Scripps education that let me hop up barefoot and in ripped shorts, and be able to speak passionately about the project. TM: When did you find out that you'd been awarded the Strauss scholarship? BV: The foundation has made it a tradition to personally call every recipient the moment they make the decision, so I got a phone call on a Saturday after doing yoga on the lawn and an info session on It Ends Here, the new self-defense CLORG Jennifer Mathai (’12) and I are starting. I was in the Motley and I’m SURE there was a remix of Florence and the Machine in the background or something ridiculous like that.

TM: How will you be using the scholarship funding? BV: I will be using the scholarship funding for housing, travel, transportation in the city, duplication of the materials, as well as for costs associated with actually doing outreach during the summer and school year at various locations. There will also be costs for the webmaster to update the website and for a graphics team to design the publication.

TM: How had you been involved in LGBT educational outreach prior to applying for the Strauss? BV: I haven't really worked with queer youth, so much as I have worked in a variety of capacities in the queer community at Scripps amongst my peers. I have been the co-president of Family for two years, and I was the co-head mentor for the Queer, Questioning and Allied Mentor Program and as a staff member at the QRC. In those positions, I definitely learned to speak passionately about queer issues, so LGBT educational outreach is just the next step. I will be learning a lot, though, because it's a whole new setting, a whole new community, and, really, a whole new population.

TM: How has this award affected your plans for your next year at Scripps (and beyond)? BV: I am worried that I am going to fall so in love with San Francisco and the queer community there that I will derail my plans to be a teacher and instead go into community organizing and activism. Really, it's not a fear so much as it is a new possibility. I know that I'm going to change so much because of this opportunity, and I'm just preparing to learn something new about myself and what I'm capable of doing. Really, though, I think it will just strengthen my resolve to work with youth and therefore encourage me even more to be an educator. And we all know that it just means I'll take on even more projects!