Harvard University graduate Alexis Rodriguez Mejia readily acknowledges that it took a lot of grit and hard work to successfully navigate the Ivy League as a first-generation college student.
But he takes only partial credit for earning his recent undergraduate degree in government – he’s quick to credit his parents, Alejadrino and Maria, several high school teachers and other key mentors, especially members of Santa Ana Police Department’s PAAL, or Police Athletic & Activity League, program.
“Looking back, my degree was a combination of efforts,” says Rodriguez Mejia, who joined PAAL in third grade and was an active member for seven years. Based at the Santa Ana PAAL Central Station at the former McFadden library, PAAL is “a comprehensive community program that builds bonds between kids and cops through education, fitness and activities.”
“I’m thankful to be part of such an amazing community,” continues the 22-year-old, who lives in Santa Ana with his parents and brother Emmanuel. “This wasn’t my graduation but our graduation. Not all of my friends could be there, but all of them were in my head as I got my diploma.”
Two of those were Officer Thomas Serafin – the program’s first director – and past coordinator Officer Kenney Aguilar, both of whom encouraged Rodriguez Mejia’s early penchant for voracious reading.
“I credit them with my love of learning,” he says.
“They taught me the importance of a balanced life and work schedule, and helped me build a toolkit for the future,” he says.
He vividly recalls the agenda PAAL developed for students, which included reading time, homework, workouts, and athletics, and remembers developing his California Missions project at the center. He remembers the officers treating PAAL kids to field trips, including Angels baseball games, Galaxy soccer matches, or Monster Jam truck/auto competitions.
“It takes more than our program for someone to graduate from Harvard,” says Corporal John Holcomb, PAAL’s current director. “But we set the foundation and Alexis took it from there. He has the qualities for success – he’s dedicated, persistent, and motivated. He was here every day. His effort was through the roof.”
In recognition of his accomplishments, Rodriguez Mejia recently became the sixth person to be honored on PAAL’s Hall of Fame.
Self-navigating his early education was challenging, Rodriguez Mejia confesses.
“My parents didn’t speak English when they moved here, and I almost failed second grade because I couldn’t speak it fluently,” he recalls.
That was when his parents, seeking opportunities and resources, first located PAAL. Later, he was selected to attend Santa Ana Unified’s Middle College High School, located on the campus of Santa Ana College. There, he was treasurer of the robotics team, served as the student representative at Site Council meetings, and earned four associate degrees in addition to his high school diploma. He fondly recalls physics instructor Clifford Gerstman mentoring him through robotics activities.
Through it all, PAAL was there for him.
“It gave me the resources for me to succeed,” he declares. “They set me up for success.”
Thus, he says, he was prepared academically and socially for success at Harvard, where he took classes that were intense, all-encompassing, and requiring extraordinary time, effort and energy.
While today you can find him reading poetry or other works of literature in his spare moments – in addition to catching up on the latest video games – Rodriguez Mejia remembers as a preteen devouring the series of Percy Jackson books written by Rick Riordan.
In addition to his extracurricular and academic efforts, he and his mother for many years cared for his grandfather, who was partially paralyzed and later suffered dementia. His beloved grandfather passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He was non-verbal, but even in his silence he taught me so much about the world,” Rodriguez Mejia says.
During the summers in both high school and college, Rodriguez Mejia had internships, including one in Congressman Lou Correa’s office through the Young Congressional Leaders program and another in the Santa Ana city manager’s office.
Throughout, his PAAL mentors assisted in helping him write cover letters, develop a resume, and learn interviewing skills.
“Arrive early, dress professionally,” he recalls Aguilar telling him during dry-run drills.
Right now, Rodriguez Mejia is taking a year to study for the LSAT and looking for an interim job. Ultimately, he wants to become a lawyer and, eventually, a judge.
“I want to make change like the Mendez family did (to integrate schools) in Orange County,” he says. Mendez v. Westminster School District was a 1947 federal court case that successfully challenged Mexican remedial schools in four county districts.
“I enjoy giving back to the community that raised me and made me the person I am,” he says.