The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest container port in the United States. Located in the San Pedro and Wilmington neighborhoods of Los Angeles, nearly $1.2 billion in cargo passes through the 7,500-acre facility every day. To those who live and work nearby, it stands as a literal and figurative monument.

Mayra Corrales understands the importance of the port. As a business administration and international business and logistics student at California State University Maritime Academy, she grew up in Wilmington, just a stone's throw from "America's Port."

From an early age, Corrales was aware of the impact of this massive place—as a bustling center of jobs and trade and as a fulcrum of prosperity for economically hard-hit neighborhoods.

She also knew that she wanted to be involved: "Just living so close to the Port of LA, I wanted to learn what it was all about."

 

The Path to College

It was while attending Phineas Banning High School in Wilmington that Corrales' future—at the port and at Cal Maritime—began to take shape.

The school, whose students come largely from working-class Latino families, is unique within the Los Angeles Unified School District; it consists entirely of small learning communities made up of even smaller academies, prioritizing personalized learning for every student.

As a freshman, Corrales was placed in the "Port of Banning" learning community, which offers four academies; at the end of her first year of high school she chose the International Trade Academy (ITA).

Before that, college hadn't necessarily been part of Corrales' plans. Like many CSU students, there was no family tradition of attending college; her parents didn't continue their education past high school, and her brothers, who both chose to work after high school, never attended college.

Yet Corrales' mother and father always instilled in her the value of hard work.

"Being the youngest and the only girl, my parents were very strict on me," she recalls. "The most important lesson that I've gained from my parents is to always work hard. My mother would tell me, 'nothing in this life is handed to you, you have to work for everything you have.'"

"My mother's lesson is always in the back of my head."

 

 

A Transformative Friday

Back in 1999, Port of LA harbor commissioner Carol Rowen launched International Trade Education Programs (ITEP), a nonprofit organization that prepares high school students for careers in a wide range of industries.

Corrales' school, Banning High, was one the high schools to get ITEP; the program was an instant success with students.

Fast forward to 2013. That's when ITEP secured for Corrales an internship with the Port of LA's risk management division before her senior year of high school.

There, her understanding of how the port operated deepened; she gained work experience and a network of contacts; and she attended skill-building workshops and Friday guest lectures.

One of those Friday guest lecturers was Captain James Morgan. He gave a presentation on the unique opportunities that Cal Maritime—his alma mater—could offer to high school students with Corrales' background and newly-acquired skills.

The 17-year-old's interest was immediately piqued, particularly when Morgan mentioned the high job placement and starting salaries for Cal Maritime alumni. Over 90 percent of graduates are employed within three months of graduation.

In the latter part of her senior year, Corrales applied and was accepted.

"Mayra has always stood out to me and was one of the first International Trade Academy students to enroll at Cal Maritime," says Morgan, who received the school's Lifetime Achievement Alumni Award in 2015 and who, with his alumni classmates, established a scholarship fund specifically for ITEP students from Banning High who go to Cal Maritime. Over the last eight years, the fund has raised $250,000.

After hearing that Corrales had been accepted to the school, Morgan and his fellow alumni revised the requirements for the scholarship, which was originally only open to students from another academy, to include students from ITA.

"Kids in Wilmington have major disadvantages," Morgan notes. "Their parents work very hard, but the college experience is not one that is supported, because it's hardly even known about."

 

Navigating New Waters

Cal Maritime's small size—the campus serves just 1,200 students on 89 acres—may have been more reassuring to Corrales than a huge school, but its distance—a six-hour drive from Wilmington—was an adjustment for everyone.

"I am the first person in my family to attend college," she says. "So when I told my parents I got accepted to Cal Maritime, at first my dad was very protective and hesitant about me going."

"Now, my whole family is very supportive."

Acclimating to college could have been difficult, but Corrales did so quickly. "That's because I came to school with a roommate I've known since 10th grade. We're fortunate to have a 'Banning Family' here on campus—the upperclassmen who also came from Banning," she explains, adding that "a lot of great faculty helped get me out of my shell."

In her first semester she'd already taken a job in the university's admissions office, where she continues to share her love for her new home with prospective students and their families.

"I give campus tours," she says. "My favorite place to take them is the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) building, which was renovated specifically for the international relations and global trade students. Our degree program didn't have a place on campus like [Cal Maritime's training ship] Golden Bear, but now we do. It's ours."

As part of the campus's summer requirements for students, Corrales went to Bulgaria and Romania for three weeks to learn more about international ports. "Because of Cal Maritime, I know I want to travel more," she says. "I wouldn't mind moving overseas to work at a port or for a shipping company."

Summer 2017, in fact, may include an internship—another requirement for her degree—with an international container terminal operating company in the Netherlands.

"Cal Maritime has given me the experience that I feel I would have not received at any other campus," adds Corrales. "It just offers a lot of hands-on experience and really pushes you to succeed and to be the best."


"I Want to Give Back"

Not content simply to be a strong student in a demanding major, Corrales also wants to bring her path to college and a career full circle by helping more students from Banning High and Wilmington reach their own goals.

"I know that many students are not given the same support or opportunity that I had," she says. "I want to be there for those students who are coming to a new school, new city and new environment by themselves."

That's what inspired her to become an Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Summer Bridge mentor to freshmen, many of whom are also the first in their families to go to college.

EOP is a CSU program operating on all 23 campuses providing access to academic advising, peer mentoring, workshops, tutoring and more for over 250,000 low-income and educationally disadvantaged students throughout California. Summer Bridge also provides tutoring and help to freshmen before they start college.

"What drew me to becoming a mentor was my experience coming to Cal Maritime and knowing that there was a family of Banning High students that would help me," she explains. "I knew I was going to have the support I needed to succeed."

Corrales is also keen to follow in the footsteps of alumni like Captain Morgan. "I saw the example of him and others taking time and raising money for the Banning High scholarship and helping students reach their goals," she says. "There has always been someone supporting and pushing me at Cal Maritime."

"Once I finish school, I would like for my work to be meaningful. I want to give back the same way that they did."