Big-name scholarships, acts of Christian service, and edifying examples of faith. That’s at the heart of the young men and women from the Class of 2023 — the youngest class to experience the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in high school. Here are a few of their stories from around the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Marissa Melendez, Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School

When Marissa Melendez starts college at UCLA in the fall, she’ll already be a junior, having taken an associate degree’s worth of classes while in high school.

Getting an AA degree while in high school is pretty rare, but Melendez is not your average student.

The main reason she chose Bishop Conaty was to take those college classes, and from the get-go as an incoming freshman she said she was ready to try.

Marissa Melendez. (Submitted photo)

“Ever since freshman year, I kept taking more and then doubling it, then doing some of it during winter. Then I would give up my summers to college courses to really get my AA in there,” Melendez said.

Not that the workload was easy. Between playing basketball, volleyball, AP courses, and just being a teenager, things got stressful.

“Honestly, I don't know how I was so organized the past four years,” Melendez said.

“I just kept praying to God whenever I needed anything, whenever I was stressed. My faith really helped me.”

She plans to major in computer science engineering and wants to create things that make people’s lives better, whether that’s building robots to help deliver medicine or coding programs that help people with disabilities.

Since she’s already ahead on earning her bachelor’s degree, Melendez is already looking to obtain a master’s degree and later a doctorate.

“When making these decisions, I was looking to God and saying he wouldn’t put me in this position for no reason, so I have to take advantage of everything that I am receiving,” she said.

Isaec Valencia, Bishop Mora Salesian High School

Isaec Valencia wants to be a doctor, but first he had to be a caddie.

The 6-foot-4 standout senior at Bishop Mora Salesian in Boyle Heights received a $125,000 Evans Scholarship from the Western Golf Association Caddie Academy, given to students who complete the caddie program, get good grades, and have outstanding character.

Valencia had no experience with golf or caddying, but after seeing a presentation about the program, he saw it as an opportunity worth pursuing to help him grow, meet new people, and experience a world he was not familiar with.

Isaec Valencia. (Western Golf Association)

“I always felt that if I wanted to do more in life or be able to get a broader sense of what I could accomplish, I feel like I needed to see more and see what was part of the grander experience,” he said. “It’s better to explore and see new things rather than be trapped in the environment that I was already used to.”

He decided to pursue becoming a doctor after seeing how the COVID-19 pandemic left families unaware and uninformed about how best to take care of themselves. Valencia suffered from Type-2 diabetes during the pandemic and his doctor helped him see the impact it was having on his health and how to manage it.

As he prepares for college and beyond, he’s grateful for the Catholic education and faith that he received from Bishop Mora Salesian.

“That definitely helped ground me where I always had somewhere to look toward for inspiration, especially in times where things were tough,” Valencia said. “I would just look to my faith in order to gain some type of motivation to complete my goals.”

Valencia will attend Northwestern University in Chicago.

David Ceballos, Don Bosco Technical Institute

If there is an award or scholarship to be had, David Ceballos is probably in line to earn it.

The senior from Don Bosco in Rosemead was named valedictorian and has won scholarships from big-name companies, including Amazon, Southern California Edison, and Lockheed-Martin.

He was most proud of winning the Edison Scholarship.

David Ceballos. (Submitted photo)

“I know that was a very competitive scholarship,” Ceballos said. “A lot of people applied for that one. The fact that they chose me to get it was amazing. I’m really proud of myself for that.”

Ceballos, 17, was also chosen as a 2023 Amazon Future Engineer and has already completed both the Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation Summer Fellows Program and a coding internship with SoZango Solutions/Flex Together, an online health community.

When he ran out of math courses to take at Don Bosco, he simply took an AP Statistics course with Stanford Online High School.

He even found time to help tutor students in math and physics at both Don Bosco and a local library.

Ceballos will be attending USC in the fall with an eye toward becoming a biomedical engineer. He credits his experience at Don Bosco with helping him see the need to go in that direction.

“The Catholic education inspired me to want to help people,” Ceballos said. “I think in biomedical engineering you can really do that, because it’s one of the biggest things in health care that people are going to need different things to live longer and happier and healthier lives.”

Claudette Villegas, Alverno Heights Academy

Claudette Villegas is not sure yet how she’s going to change the world, but she’s determined to do it.

Whether it’s running for political office or being a champion for social justice and activism, Villegas, 17, wants to be a leader for change and helping others. But she didn’t always have such conviction. She admitted to being a shy, timid freshman, but getting involved in student government and having influential teachers helped push her to grow.

Claudette Villegas. (Submitted photo)

“Sometimes, at the end of the day, one little voice does matter and does make a big difference,” she said.

If she does end up as a public servant, she already has a heart to serve, having earned a Christian Service Award from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“It wasn’t just so I could get service hours or an award, but service to me was brightening someone’s day,” Villegas said.

Villegas will attend the University of Portland in the fall and there’s so much on her mind that she can’t wait to tackle, including immigration and gun control. She believes the Church can be more accepting and she wants to help bring more people back to their faith and feel loved.

“If you do want to be part of the Church and you feel like there’s change that needs to come to it, I will listen to you,” she said. “I will hear you and I will do everything in my power that I can to make that change in the Church, to make you part of the community.”

Luke Jones, Crespi Carmelite High School

In September 2020, Crespi Carmelite sophomore Luke Jones was dealing with uncertainty, stress, and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic raging and the switch to school virtual learning. 

Then his mom died.

Understandably devastated, Jones couldn’t escape the heartache because he couldn’t go anywhere. All he had was his father, his brother, four walls, and a roof.

Luke Jones. (Submitted photo)

“When I had lost my mom initially, that loss was really pronounced,” he said. “I could feel it more because of COVID because I was always at home with my family.”

Other people might have folded or used the tragedy as an excuse to let his effort — and grades — plummet. But not Jones. His mother wouldn’t have let him.

“One thing that she taught me is that I shouldn't let any obstacle deter me from reaching my goals,” he said. “So I didn’t use this as an excuse to let my grades slip or to quit or to back down from anything. I used it to motivate me.

“That was a way I could honor her through my dedication and hard work and showcase my abilities academically.”

So rather than collapse, he got straight A’s in his sophomore, junior, and senior years. He was named valedictorian. The math club that he founded won three consecutive national titles. And plenty more.

Beyond his Catholic education at Crespi Carmelite, Jones also leaned on his faith at St. Euphrasia Church in Granada Hills, where he volunteered in the teen RCIA program and for high school confirmations.

“Just being able to be a mentor to those kids, to be able to guide them spiritually, that’s so rewarding,” Jones said.

As he prepares to enter UCLA in the fall, majoring in math, he can’t help but hope his mom would’ve been proud of him.

“I think she would be just so happy for me for being able to accomplish my goals,” he said.

“Now that you have these good things happening, don’t let up.”