In L.A., many young people share a common thread: immigrant parents, a language barrier, harsh surroundings and other circumstances that make educational achievements difficult.

In fact, new research from the Brookings Institution shows that nearly a quarter of 16 to 24 year-olds in L.A. are either not in school or do not have a high school diploma. The impact has huge implications on earning potential throughout their lifetimes.

In spite of these harrowing numbers, some students are not only beating the odds – they’re paying it forward by helping others succeed. One such example is Vanessa Gonzalez. Vanessa, a recent graduate of California State University, Northridge, currently serves as a City Year Los Angeles corps member at Compton Avenue Elementary School.  This weekend, she joined other students and influential leaders from the L.A. area to discuss the needs of the city’s youth during a YouthSpark Connections event on the University of Southern California’s campus. Her own story of success with the help of her dedicated high school teacher and mentor, Ms. Tam, inspired other educators and students in attendance to “take advantage of the resources around them to help others.”

Many distinguished guests and education leaders in L.A. joined Vanessa to remark on the future of students in the area including: Dr. John E. Deasy, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD); Ronald Chandler, Chief Information Officer for LAUSD; Michael Dolphin, Chief - Counties of Los Angeles and Ventura Workforce Services Division of the State of California’s Employment Development Department; Alison Graff-Weisner, Executive Director, City Year Los Angeles; Leonardo Ortiz Villacorta Ramirez, Director of Field Engagement, Microsoft Global Citizenship; Kristin Rhodes, Education General Manager for West and Central Regions, Microsoft; Dr. Alma Salazar, Vice President of Education and Workforce Development, LA Chamber of Commerce and Kim West, Microsoft Innovative Educator Fellow.

The Microsoft YouthSpark Connections events showcase the power of persistent teachers and mentors. Vanessa was lucky enough to have both. Now she’s one of more than 280 City Year members serving on teams in LAUSD schools across the area that work as tutors, mentors and role models for students who need support.  The teams also organize school wide programming, including after school tutoring, and special math and literacy nights for students and their families.

To learn more about YouthSpark, click here.