As Maria Silva sits in the break room to eat her lunch at 9 p.m., students coming out of a late class often drift by her as if she were a ghost. When Maria finishes her lunch, she quietly packs up and takes her cleaning cart into the classroom the students just left. Inside she patiently picks up the mess of paper on the floor, mops up the spilled soda, and cleans the chalkboard.

For 10 years, Maria has cleaned up after the students in Wheeler Hall. Each night she puts the building back together so these same students have clean and organized classrooms to learn in the next day. By now, she’s used to students forgetting to acknowledge her work.

As I passed people like Maria in the halls of UC Berkeley during my first year of graduate school I knew I couldn’t ignore them, but a simple "hi and thank you" wasn’t enough either.

I decided the best way I could thank people like Maria for their work was to expose other people to it. I wanted people to know how hard, lonely, and exhausting her work is. Even more importantly, I wanted students to know Maria as a person. I wanted them to know that she has a family, ambitions, and feelings.

I pursued the project as part of a class at the Graduate School of Journalism, and it taught me a lot about the way photography can expose the parts of our society that most of us usually ignore. Through simple, but meaningful images, I hope I was able to bring people into Maria’s life.

I recently found a similar project that I think is of equal importance. Sgt. Steve Edwards is a National Guard soldier who just returned from a year-long deployment to Iraq and now lives in San Jose. In combat he excelled as a leader and was known as one of the most dependable soldiers in the unit.

But ever since he’s come home things have not been the same. He was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that is so bad he sometimes can’t leave his house. He lost his job and is struggling, with the help of his wife and daughter, to repair his life.

Steve, like Maria, sometimes feels under-appreciated. As a National Guard soldier, Steve realizes that he’s become a second-class citizen compared to the full-time troops. The biggest discrepancy has been the lack of quality medical services and financial help. Unlike regular army troops, Steve does not live on base and have immediate access to a Veterans Affairs hospital or to financial perks like subsidized housing.

For the past several months I’ve met with Steve and his family for a magazine piece I’m writing. They’ve opened their doors and granted me full access to their lives, and their struggle. For the next year I want to continue to follow Steve’s story through photos. If things don’t get better soon, he and his wife don’t know what to do.

The project will be shot digitally and will be produced while I finish my last semester at UC Berkeley and throughout the summer, fall, and winter after I graduate. I propose to use the money from the fellowship for travel and living expenses while I track the story, and also for updated digital equipment. At the end, I will combine the photos and my magazine piece to create a multimedia story that will be produced on the web.

— Jakob Schiller