“Yes, I live in a bad neighborhood, but there is more to it than that. I had to show people that skin color doesn’t matter; it is the dedication and the strength to keep moving forward that will get you through these obstacles.”

These inspiring words were written by Miguel Cardenas, a senior at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, in his winning essay “My Legacy,” earning him a new laptop computer and a desktop printer thanks to the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF).

Cardenas was among 650 high school seniors from 27 Catholic schools across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles honored by CEF at its annual Mass and luncheon April 9 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Themed “Our Schools, Our Future,” the gathering celebrated graduating seniors who have received tuition assistance from CEF.

Since its inception in 1987, CEF has presented more than $146 million in 141,000 tuition awards to K-12 students from underserved communities in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Cardenas, who will be attending Holy Names University in Oakland to study kinesiology, said he hopes he can serve as an inspiration to continuing and incoming Verbum Dei students to “always keep learning.”

Also honored at the luncheon were Angela Escobedo from Santa Clara High School in Oxnard, who won CEF’s student video contest for presenting “A Day in the Life” of a CEF high school student (for which she received $500 in video equipment); and Carolina Ibarra from San Gabriel Mission High School, named CEF “Senior of the Year” (receiving a laptop and printer).

In her video Escobedo discussed the importance of her Catholic education and the significant role it has played in her life, including how her schooling influenced her to establish a yearly scholarship in her name at her former middle school, to help each winning student “continue to have a Catholic education, so they can have the same opportunities that I had.” She started the scholarship after receiving a $4,000 award in 2010 to continue her own studies at Santa Clara High.

“I was very blessed and I thought that I needed to give back to my community,” explained Escobedo, who will be attending UC Berkley in the fall.

Escobedo raises funds for her scholarship by collecting recyclables throughout the year, and donates the money she raises (typically several hundred dollars) to a deserving student at the end of the school year. She plans to continue funding the scholarship and hopes to increase the monetary prize in the coming years.

For Ibarra, being named “Senior of the Year” was a heart-tugging surprise. Nominated by her guidance counselor, she was selected for the honor based on her community service and leadership roles at school, which “reflect the values of a Catholic school graduate.” Among her varied efforts, she led her school in a “1 Billion Women Rising” campaign to bring awareness to violence against women.

“I feel really appreciative for the generous gifts and for all the help the foundation has given me,” said Ibarra, who will attend either Santa Clara University or Loyola University Chicago. “[CEF] has helped me pursue my dreams and my goals.”

“We’re very proud of the students who were honored today,” said Andrew Garcia, program manager for CEF, “because they have achieved what they set out to do — they’re graduating from high school, and most of them are going to be going to college. They all have an eye on the future. It really does mean a lot to us and to our donors who have helped get them there.”