Serving up the future


When you trip, the hard part isn’t the fall. It’s the act of getting back up after you’ve hit the ground that most struggle with.

When 19-year-old Los Medanos student Nilton Serva fell, he found himself alone, staring at a future in juvenile detention during the time most kids his age were studying for geometry exams.

But now, three years later, with an above average GPA, $1000 scholarship, a budding internship at a digital marketing agency and the current president of the developing Business Club, people might be tricked into thinking he never struggled a day in his life.


His life began to take rough turns early on in his life. His mind for business was polished through drug dealing and theft. In high school, the risky lifestyle eventually caught up with him and a run-in with the police left him with a black eye, a badly beaten body and a long recovery time that took a toll on him emotionally. After the incident, he was set up with the lawyers of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by an Oakland BART police officer in 2009 that made national headlines and was adapted into the film “Fruitvale Station.” Serva had a compelling case but was ultimately forced to forfeit it when he was incarcerated for new crimes shortly after at age 16.

The seven months he spent in a juvenile facility in Martinez are what he credits for turning him into a different man with a radically new outlook on life.

“You don’t have to worry about anything in there. Your whole day is planned out for you. All you do is think. So I just kept thinking, ‘What’s my next step?’ It was graduate high school, then go from there.”

He found a new purpose in books about business. With nothing to distract him, he found comfort and a fresh perspective on learning.

“I read a lot of books. I would read it, tuck it under my bed, read, finish it, then get another business book, then another,” he said. “I read all the ones in my facility and then read the ones for an adult facility. I didn’t know a lot of the words, so I wrote down words to define and websites to search when I got out, important quotes and concepts. I self-taught.”

Since dropping his education after tenth grade, he decided to earn a GED equivalent while in juvenile detention. Through the Reset Foundation and an organization called Bay Area Community Resources, both of which strive to assist and encourage youth who may be struggling with poverty, court-involvement and unemployment, Serva learned about financial aid offered by LMC.

Soon after being released early for good behavior, he made up the missing essential credits and earned his high school diploma at the age of 18. Anyone who meets him now would never guess that he ever strayed from the path of a regular public school education. He takes pre-calculus amongst four other classes and is a business administration major with three semesters under his belt. But the new life wasn’t handed to him.

“I put a lot of work into what I do. Everyone tells me I do extra, that I don’t have to do this or that. But it’s what makes me stand out.”

The first classes he took after being released were summer school classes. He balanced a full day of classes with a part time job at Costco.

“I would wake up an hour and a half before school to get ready and organized. When you are coming from nothing and want to be something and make a change, you do it,” he said. “People think change takes a long time, it doesn’t. It happens in a second.”

This mindset came from months of pondering what his quality of life and future meant to him while inside the Martinez facility.

“You either go all in thuggin’ it or go all in [toward] change. Once you start looking at years inside, you really start to think about it. Was it worth it? I even thought about ‘What if I did this crime in a different way?’ And then would think ‘What is my life?’”

He began to take charge of his future by attending the California Workforce Association’s Youth@Work Conference in order to make connections and learn more about his passion for business. But before making the trek down to Long Beach, Serva felt the need to stand out amongst the other attendees of the conference. He researched what scholarships would be given out at the conference, found one that suited him and applied. The Antioch native ended up being the only Bay Area recipient of the Dwight Brydie Scholarship for $1000 at the conference.

Because of his initiative and drive to stand out, Serva made a positive impression on those at the event and was approached by Daisy Garcia from the Community Services Employment Training organization who asked him to be the keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual Regional Youth Education Summit in March. “If I hadn’t applied to that scholarship, I wouldn’t get to be the keynote speaker at a whole other event,” he said.

A few months ago, Serva’s path to success was interrupted by the death of a close friend. The reality of where he might be if he hadn’t changed his lifestyle shook his world.

“He was like my brother. He had the same mindset as me, a leader, entrepreneur, but he sold drugs. I could have gone into it too, I was good at it. But he didn’t want me to, he told me not to come, that I was too smart for this,” he said, “My therapist told me that you can be the most changed person in the world but if you go back into the same place, same environment, same people, you’re just going to go back to the same ways.”

In order to move past the loss, Serva asked himself what it was that he wanted to accomplish. His dream career isn’t about creating a business that makes him as much money as possible. Instead, he says it’s about creating jobs for other people.

“You can have one job, but how many people are you helping with that job? I want to be able to give that to people,” Serva said. “I want to help people impact their lives because I didn’t have that.”

He is currently working on multiple projects and is full of objectives. In his hometown he is working on a presentation for the Reset Foundation and BACR to propose a youth mentorship program for youth, by youth, in downtown Antioch. Serva wants the mentorship program to focus on what he is best at– personal and career development and general health and wellness.

Last fall, he also started the Business Club at LMC. The club currently has 16 members and Serva is in the process of figuring out who can take over as the new president for the next school year.

His biggest project is trying to allocate funds and create an internship at a friend’s digital marketing startup. He came up with the idea to involve those in the Business Club who may be interested in advancing their careers and is creating a team of interns to create content for the company.

“You don’t see Google coming to Pittsburg and asking for interns,” he said. “I want to give these opportunities to regular kids.”

Through utilizing the resources available to him, strategizing every day for his future and never once letting doubt take over, the 19 year-old has not only taken charge of his own future, but is excited to help others do so too. He knows that in order to help others, he first has to be able to help himself.

“If opportunity doesn’t knock on your door, go knock on its door. I found so many doors and knocked on all of them.”