by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot
MERCED (KPIX 5) -- The students stomp, step and sashay across the small dance studio located on the University of California Merced campus. At the center of it all is sophomore Curtavia Gill, founder and coach of the UC Merced's first step team.
During the school year, three times a week for three hours at a stretch, Gill gives gentle critiques, calls out commands, and demonstrates steps to roughly a dozen or so young women practicing the routines. It's a leadership role Gill clearly relishes, and something she takes to naturally.
READ MORE: Students Rising Above on KPIX 5
"A lot of my childhood was spent helping my mom, my brother, my sister," explained Gill of her natural leadership skills. "As an older sibling you're expected to always be on you're A-game, which is what my life is."
Gill excelled in high school, wanting to set a good example for her younger siblings. But it was when a representative from Students Rising Above told Gill about SRA's program that her ambitions really took off.
"I'm an overachiever," explained Gill. "And she gave us this crazy statistic about how many students get in and how many students apply and I was like, 'I'm gonna get in.'"
Gill was accepted to SRA's program, and she says the non-profit helped her get into college.
"SRA was there through every step," said Gill. "Through the application process, through interviews if I had them, through financial aid and definitely there to guide me in the right direction."
The right direction, Gill says, was to UC Merced, where she is double majoring in Sociology and Psychology. Coaching step is Gill's passion; part of her desire to help others feel welcomed at college by providing a safe and fun space for expression. Her efforts are impressive to fellow students and teammates alike.
"If you want to go with her, if you want to accomplish that goal, too, she will make sure to give you the tools that you need to succeed," said teammate and friend Jessica Stokes.
It's Gill's gentle encouragement that friend Knyla Lane takes note of in every practice.
"As a captain she is very dedicated," said Lane. "She has a lot of patience with everybody."
Gill says step has empowered her in ways she never expected.
"I'm seeing how powerful step is," said Gill. "It's touching other people and I'm seeing how we're being noticed because of what we stand for and I feel like that's the powerful aspect of it."
for more features.