10/15/2010 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why I Serve

My name is Stephen Figueroa Salinas, I am 25 years old. Forty years ago, my grandmother immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico. A single parent with four children and not a penny to her name, she began her quest for the "American Dream." It was a journey filled with great sacrifice and tragic loss.

Two of her children, my uncles, attended Belmont High School and sadly both dropped out before they reached the 10th grade. While this was nearly 30 years ago, Belmont High School still has the highest dropout rate of any high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They ultimately went down a path wrought with violence and drug abuse. It was watching their pain that taught me the value of making the right choices.

At 21, after becoming the first in my family to graduate from college, I decided to dedicate a year of my life to serving my community. My family was shocked that I would work so hard to become a full-time "volunteer," living off a small stipend. From my standpoint, I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to have a choice. It is because of this that I decided to join City Year, an AmeriCorps program, and commit a year of my life to serving Los Angeles and my country. I would be a tutor, mentor and role model to students at risk of dropping out of high school living in high-need communities. I tried to show my family why this was such an important responsibility, but all they could see was that I would be putting off immediate financial success to work as a "volunteer."

For an entire year, I traveled from West Los Angeles, near my alma mater of Loyola Marymount University, to the neighborhood of Pico-Union -- a place filled with people who looked like me, full of cultural pride and a shared belief in the power of community. I cannot begin to explain how my year changed my life. I had the opportunity to work one on one with students who were learning English as a second language, as I once had -- to show them that they too could learn and succeed.

I particularly remember Jesse. Like any rambunctious middle-schooler who wanted to test the newbie, he called me over to a table of his classmates and asked, "Mister, you in college?"

"No, I already graduated."

As if to challenge the truth of my answer, he looked at me and said, "But you're Mexican?"

"Yeah. I'm Mexican!"

He turned to his table and said, "I told you Mexicans can graduate college!"

During my year, I realized that service is how I would honor the sacrifice my family made in coming to this country. With the choice I was afforded, I had the opportunity to give Jesse, Jessica and numerous other students the role model they needed to stay their course towards graduation and break the cycle of oppression that afflicts so many of them. It also showed my family that for me, graduating college was only my first step towards success; I would not be truly successful unless I was able to create success for others.

I decided to turn my year of service into a life-long career. Four years later, I am now a Program Director at City Year Los Angeles where I oversee 75 corps members who serve each day to keep children in school at John Liechty Middle School, Berendo Middle School, NOW Academy, UCLA Community School and Virgil Middle School (the middle school my uncles attended).

I have witnessed a great movement toward national service spread across the nation sparked by the last Presidential election. If a man of color who worked as a community organizer could rise to the ranks of President of the United States then just imagine what I and others like me could do. I know the power of young people and the power of service. It is why I continued to serve so diligently for the last three years in the community of Pico-Union and why I will continue on my path. These students need hope. They need to believe they too deserve more. Because of what they see in corps members, they can now see potential in themselves. My uncles didn't have the opportunities or the choices available to me. I can only help but feel that if they had had the role models that City Year provides children, maybe their lives could have been different.

I call upon all of my peers -- the young people of this nation -- to join me in creating a new national tradition that helps fulfill the American Dream for everyone in our great society: a year of service.