Growing up in the border town of Mexicali, Baja California, Luis Alejandro Lara vowed never to succumb to the drug- and violence-conflicted lifestyle that defined his neighborhood. He turned instead to education.

“When I was younger, I met a student from the local university, Universidad Autonoma de Baja California,” he says. Taking Lara under his wing, the student brought him to class to experience college firsthand and develop his own dreams of getting a degree.

Now a third-year honors economics major at UCI, Lara works to instill the same dreams of academic achievement among socio-economic disadvantaged children. A recipient of the 2007 Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship, Lara founded Dreams of Education, a program that provides mentoring, academic assistance, campus tours and college admissions information to students and their parents at Santa Ana high schools.

“There are a number of barriers to entry into college,” Lara says. “For many students, the biggest barrier is not believing in themselves.”

Lara knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. When he was 16, his family migrated to the U.S. so he could pursue his education.

“Only three of the students I graduated from middle school with went on to pursue high school diplomas,” he says. Arriving in Anaheim to begin high school, he faced another challenge.

“I didn’t speak a word of English,” he says. “It was frustrating because I was placed in very basic courses for all my classes. I knew the material, but I didn’t know the language.” He eventually completed advanced placement courses.

Lara established Dreams of Education in fall 2007 with the help of student volunteers from UCI, Santa Ana College (where he attended community college) and California State University.

“Our goal is to get a working model that we can implement in local elementary and middle schools,” Lara says, to combat high dropout rates among teens.

Lara also is a member of the UCI Campuswide Honors Program, a mentor with the Santa Ana Transfer Mentorship program, and recipient of the Orange County Hispanic Education Endowment Fund Scholarship and the Engaging Latino Communities for Education Scholarship. In 2004, he founded The Little School Program, a community-based English literacy program for recent immigrants.

“Luis is a remarkable student whose own pathway to academic success has been fraught with challenges,” says Sara Lundquist, vice president of Student Services at Santa Ana College, who works closely with Lara on Dreams of Education. “His program, born from someone who has traveled far and long to be where he is today, will serve as a pathway to others who dream of achieving higher educational goals.”