From Petaluma to Harvard: How PEF Impacts Our Students’ Futures

Joseph Wertz ~ PEF success story
Joseph Wertz ~ PEF success story

Joseph's Journey | The Impact of the Petaluma Educational Foundation

In 1982, Petaluma faced a critical challenge in the form of school budget cuts. But as the saying goes, adversity breeds innovation. Parents, educators, business leaders, and community advocates united to envision a brighter educational landscape for Petaluma's students. Their shared vision and relentless drive gave birth to the Petaluma Educational Foundation (PEF).

PEF is not just another organization. It's a testament to the power of community and collaboration. While the organization supports more than 12,000 students annually, the individual stories truly encapsulate its impact.

One such story is that of Joseph, an alumnus of St. Vincent de Paul Elementary and High School. During his time in Petaluma, Joseph received the Community Achievement Award for being in the top five of his class, the Hillcrest Dental Group Scholarship for a student pursuing a degree in health science, and the Kiwanis Community Service Scholarship.

Joseph graduated in 2015 and went on to receive his Bachelor’s in applied mathematics and then a Master’s in public health at Harvard. He is now a final-year medical student at UCLA.

In this interview, Joseph shares his story and explains how PEF played a pivotal role in empowering him to pursue his dreams and aim high in his career aspirations.

Joseph's Spark for Medicine

Q: What drove you to pursue medicine?

Joseph: I've always said that the combination of my two parents drove me to medicine. My mom was a nurse, so naturally, that led me to medicine, but my dad owned a restaurant. The restaurant business, in general, impacted my medical career more than anyone would ever think. From the fast-paced environment to the interactions with customers, I learned so much that I could later apply to my volunteer work at Petaluma Valley Hospital (PVH).

Q: Yes, please tell us about your experience volunteering at PVH during high school.

Joseph: My time at the hospital was transformative. It wasn't just about the medical procedures; it was about connecting with patients, understanding their stories, and realizing the tangible difference a doctor can make. That's the experience that gave me the lens to see where a journey in medical education could lead.

Q: How has PEF shaped your academic journey?

Joseph: The scholarships themselves were amazing and supported me throughout my education, but that wasn't the thing about PEF that had the most significant impact on me and my future.

The memories that stand out to me are from the PEF scholarship receptions. They were great because while I had sports to get me outside of my day-to-day classroom environment, the PEF award events brought together some of Petaluma's best and brightest students who otherwise might not have met each other.

It left an impression on me because it highlighted the excellence in Petaluma, and it helped me advance to that next level, to believe in myself, and pursue my passions.

How Community Support Shaped Joseph's Path

Q: Do you have a memorable experience or educational moment you'd like to share?

Joseph: One memory that stands out in particular is my eighth-grade math class. As far as I know, we didn't have a formal teacher for advanced math but a dedicated parent who stepped up to fill that gap. It embodied everything Petaluma generally stands for – community, dedication, and going the extra mile for education. In fact, I still credit that teacher for starting me on the successful academic path that I have taken.

Q: Any advice for current students benefiting from PEF’s programs? Or what would you tell your younger self?

Joseph: I think one thing that I always thought back to is: "If anybody is going to do it, Why not you? Why not let it be you?" That definitely inspired me and kind of kept me going. To know it is possible to become the best at something. There's certainly luck involved, but why can't you be in the top 1%?

Navigating the Landscape of Medical School

Q: Can you share a bit about your current research or studies?

Joseph: I just applied for my residency in obstetrics and gynecology. I've always thought I was going to be a trauma surgeon. All my undergraduate and maybe even high school friends will testify to that.

My trauma surgery rotation in Los Angeles was great, but my labor and delivery rotation just spoke to me. I fell in love with it.

Q: Would you have ever guessed you would've ended up here?

Joseph: I never thought I was going to go into OBGYN. I was dead set on trauma surgery. It was hard initially to make such a change, but I am so glad I did. It instilled the importance of humility and keeping an open mind.

I’ll say it is so important, to be honest with yourself on an academic journey; sometimes, you have to try a bunch of things before you find what you like, what you can do really well, and where those two things overlap.

Q: Would you like to be a mentor for others?

Joseph: Yes, I love talking to younger students. I frequently speak with undergrads who are interested in medical school. But I would be happy to one day talk to high schoolers or people just starting their higher education journey.

To give them a little insight and maybe share some of my personal experience so they know how – or at least one way – to overcome the personal and academic hurdles they encounter on their journey.

How Joseph benefited from the PEF community

Q: Any final thoughts on your experience with PEF and your overall journey?

Joseph: Petaluma is a great place to grow up, and it has a solid education system and an overall community that genuinely cares about the students. Coming from Petaluma prepares you for success at any level.

The Petaluma Difference | Petaluma Educational Foundation's Impact

Overall, Joseph's journey underscores the profound impact community-driven educational programs can have on individual students. PEF's commitment extends beyond financial support; it fosters a unique environment where scholars unite, share knowledge, and form lasting connections.

Just as Joseph was inspired by his interactions at our scholarship receptions and the dedication of a community member teaching eighth-grade math, countless others have been uplifted by the foundation's mission to support students in following their dreams.

By recognizing, honoring, and nurturing what's special within our students, PEF’s programs enhance academic prospects for students pursuing 2-year, 4-year, or vocational programs after graduation and instill a deeper appreciation for community collaboration that they benefit from.

This ripple effect ensures that beneficiaries like Joseph continue to pay forward the invaluable lessons and support they receive, perpetuating a cycle of positive influence and collective growth.

Putting Education First for more than four decades has proven to build a foundation of learning for generations of students in our community. When you support PEF, you are supporting students like Joseph. Make your pledge today to Put Education First with PEF.

Click here to donate to PEF to encourage students like Joseph to believe in their dreams, knowing our community is investing in their future!