By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College
For California Highway Patrol Sergeant Luis Lara, success means living in his hometown with good health, a good family and a good job.
Having all three allows him to do good for his community, as well.
“It was great growing up in this area, and it’s a great community to work in,” the Merced College alumnus said. “I also want this area to be the best it can be. My family and friends and colleagues live here. It’s good to give back. I need to give back. It’s what I enjoy most about living here.”
Lara has lived his entire life in Atwater, graduating in 1994 from Atwater High — where he was introduced to the Merced College dual enrollment program — and then in 1995 from Merced College, where he found law enforcement as a career.
As a senior, Lara would go to high school for four hours in the morning, work six hours at R-N Market during the day, and then hurry out to Castle Air Force Base to take college general ed classes at night.
“None of my friends knew I was [also going to college], I don’t think,” Lara said. “I’m pretty sure the counselors at Atwater High told me, ‘Hey, if you’re interested in law enforcement, do this program.’ So I enrolled in one administrative justice class and loved it.”
It was during those early days studying at Castle that Lara met Vic Hurlburt, an adjunct criminal justice instructor, who looked at Lara and saw raw clay.
“[Hurlburt] was the one that got me excited about law enforcement,” Lara said. “I must have taken three or four classes with him. … Those people at Castle were mentors to me. They understood what I needed as a high school student. They could see how focused I was. I really did take my college courses more seriously because of them, and got a lot more out of school as a result.”
Lara went on to earn a B.A. in Criminal Justice from Stanislaus State. He took a Community Security Officer job there immediately after graduation. He began his CHP career soon after in 1998, at age 21. He spent three years in Redwood City before transferring to the Merced area office.
Lara’s duties over the years have included helping new recruits through the testing process and doing background checks, but he was promoted to sergeant in Merced in 2011 to oversee all uniformed personnel who do administrative work in that office.
Now in his 23rd year with the CHP, Lara understands the saying, “Each one teach one.” He has tried to put that idea in motion his entire adult life.
His parents Pedro and Rosa Lara, his teachers in Atwater, and his instructors at Merced College all cared for Lara’s future and passed along their knowledge. He now does the same whether on the job or walking around as a citizen.
Lara came back to Merced College to teach, becoming an adjunct instructor for mature driver courses and traffic school from 2013 to 2020. He also served a term with the McSwain Elementary School District. For years with the CHP, he has also contributed to work behind the annual Christmas celebration in Planada.
Lara currently serves as secretary/treasurer for the Merced Schools Credit Union Board of Directors and, most recently, was appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to the Merced County Fair Board in 2019.
Right at the moment, Lara and his wife Vanessa are focusing energy on guiding their teenage sons Evan and Brandon through high school. Lara is doing dad duty as a chauffeur, supporting the Buhach Colony water polo program, and cheering the boys on.
Still, when Merced College instructors reach out looking for guest speakers, Lara always volunteers. It allows him to keep an eye on the next generation, like others kept an eye on him decades ago.
“It’s always great to recruit from your home area,” Lara said. “It feels great when an officer from another office approaches me and says, ‘You don’t know me, but you recruited me at Merced College.’”
This area is both Lara’s home and his purpose. His “sense of community” doesn’t stop when the work day ends.
“Being at Merced College showed me what real life could be,” he said. “When I graduated, I never really left. It wasn’t my last day at the college. I still go back there in whatever capacity I can. Doing that makes me happy.”