Maria Pacheco puts on her headphones – music set to 90s alternative – and heads to the Fresno State campus. With her head held high, she takes a deep breath and tunes out her surroundings. Her daily two-mile “gratitude” walk from her car onto campus is one of the only times she is able to get a sense of calm amid her busy schedule.
Pacheco wears many hats as a full-time social work student, mother of six, nonprofit executive director, published author and intern, and – perhaps her most unique role – mayor of Kerman.
“It’s an extraordinary life I live,” Pacheco said with a laugh. “It’s definitely not conventional, and at times the expectations of me can get very heavy, but I try to practice gratitude for all that I have.”
Won Kerman Election by 90 Votes
It was nearly one year ago, in November 2022, that Pacheco won Kerman’s mayoral election. It was a tight race, and after two counts, Pacheco won by 90 votes.
Her win was historic.
Pacheco became the first Latina of indigenous roots to serve as Kerman’s mayor and, with no prior experience in politics, her road has been anything but typical. In fact, she never aspired to become mayor.
It was an opportunity that was suggested to her multiple times by friends and acquaintances in the political sphere, whom she met while advocating for funds for a transportation program in the city. At first, Pacheco laughed off their lofty suggestions, but soon realized it was a real possibility that would allow her to make a significant impact on the community that raised her.
“In essence, my motivation to run for mayor stemmed from a genuine desire to make a tangible difference in Kerman’s growth and well-being, building upon the successes I had already achieved in my previous endeavors,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco was officially sworn in as mayor the month after her historic win. It was also around this time that Pacheco was finishing her end-of-semester social work exams at Fresno State.
Much like being the mayor, Pacheco’s path to higher education was unconventional. However, she was determined to earn a degree from Fresno State no matter what obstacles came her way.
Dreaming of Success
Pacheco’s life changed when she was 15 years old.
Due to religious beliefs and life choices she was making at the time, Pacheco’s parents thought it would be best to arrange a relationship for her. As a result, she became a young mother of two by her 18th birthday, forcing her to drop out of high school. After getting married at 20, she later had two more children and went on to earn her GED. This propelled her desire to pursue a college education.
“At 25, I achieved a significant milestone by becoming a published author (“Run With Me”), but I knew that my education was still a priority,” Pacheco said. “I returned to school at that point, but after three years, I had to take a break. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t fully understand the consequences of this decision, and I couldn’t return to school until I had paid off my outstanding debt.”
She took this opportunity to enroll in classes at Fresno City College, knowing Fresno State was her ultimate goal. She transferred to Fresno State in fall 2021, while simultaneously finishing her associate’s degree in social work at Fresno City College.
Looking back, Pacheco realized she was actually a social worker by nature all along in her prior roles volunteering with at-risk youth, as a human resource manager, as an advocate at a women’s resource center, and currently as the executive director of nonprofit Higher Education For All Mentoring Program. In each of these roles, her passion for the profession intensified.
This solidified her decision to pursue a social work degree at Fresno State, which she said aligns well with her leadership role.
“By combining my social work background with political advocacy, I hope to make a meaningful impact on the lives of those in need and work towards a more equitable and inclusive society,” Pacheco said. “Social work is who I am, not what I do.”
So one may ask, how does Pacheco balance it all?
“You don’t realize you have the system to do it until you’re in it. It’s definitely challenging and a bit of a juggling act, but the most important tool is time management,” Pacheco said as she pulled out her digital calendar.
Each day is never the same, with tasks meticulously planned and scheduled in her calendar from time-sensitive meetings with city officials and constituents to completing class assignments and writing papers to even minor tasks, like grocery shopping.
When she is not attending her Tuesday and Thursday classes, Pacheco is at her social work internship with the program I Am Valuable, and working within her own nonprofit.
Pacheco fits in her civic and mayoral duties in between classes and on weekends. Her work ethic inspires not only her classmates but her faculty as well.
“I have spoken with Mayor Pacheco about the challenges associated with governing during her first term,” said Dr. Travis Cronin, associate professor in the Department of Social Work Education. “Her imagination, persistence,and humility as she leverages resources for the residents of Kerman inspires me. Although she is just getting started, her intersectional experiences — as a mayor, as a woman of color, and as a social work student – are influencing social workers across the country.”
Pacheco will graduate in May with her bachelor’s degree in social work and afterwards, she has her sights set on the Master of Social Work program’s Title IV-E Child Welfare program. With her dual degrees, she hopes to continue working with youth, particularly among the undocumented or Indigenous populations who face adversity in accessing higher education.
Pacheco also plans to venture into other areas of politics, by writing and advocating for policies that support marginalized communities. Eventually, she’d like to teach at the junior college level and possibly become a professor.
“Now, as I stand on the cusp of graduation, I couldn’t be more excited about this upcoming milestone,” Pacheco said. “My journey to Fresno State has been marked by challenges and sacrifices, but it has also been a testament to my unwavering commitment to my education and the pursuit of my dreams.”
Fresno State’s annual 24-hour, online Day of Giving is Thursday, Nov. 2. The College of Health and Human Services relies on private financial support, such as funds raised from the Day of Giving, to support student success. For questions about how to support students like Maria Pacheco, contact Amy Millis at email@example.com or 559.278.5590.