Since 1991, Mount Saint Mary’s student ambassadors have worked to motivate Los Angeles high school students to aspire to a college education. The ambassadors have always met with students in person. This year, after schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ambassadors rose to the challenge and continued their work online, connecting with high school students in new and creative ways.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese announced the school closures on March 13. “When I first heard, I immediately thought of my students,” says Michelle Montiel ’21, who worked at Bishop-Conaty—Our Lady of Loretto High School, her alma mater. “We bonded as I worked with them and their parents to apply to colleges. A few students were undocumented, and we had to fill out the Dream Act paperwork. One was waiting for a green card. I knew they would still need help even if schools were closed.”
“I wasn’t surprised the student ambassadors still wanted to work with their students,” says Karla Guzman ’13, assistant director of Women’s Leadership and Community Engagement, who oversees the program. “As an alum and a former ambassador, I know what the work means to the students. I knew they would want to finish the year.”
Before the closures, Kimberly Ganivet ’20 gave workshops to 60 students at a time at Franklin High School on topics such as the Cal State application process, the SAT and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). She also met with students to help them with their college applications.
“Like many students at Franklin, I am also a first generation college student,” Ganivet says, “and I had to figure out the application process on my own. It’s an overwhelming process.” She also found that many students could not properly evaluate the value of their aid packages. “Many didn’t understand the financial aid options being offered to them. What if they make the wrong decision?”
The ambassadors also compiled college manuals for their sites. “It’s a big book of everything you need to know when applying to college,” she says. “Ambassadors teach students about the different college systems, about the A-G requirements [sequence of classes that must be completed with a C or better for the student to be eligible at UC or Cal State schools], how to submit a FAFSA, and how to write personal statements.”
Ambassadors also serve high school students at community partner sites, such as the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Boyle Heights. Karina Cruz ’22 helped her supervisor there develop Zoom-based online programming, researched scholarships and kept students up to date on which colleges extended their acceptance deadlines.
“Ms. Karina is my foot in the door. She tells me things I wouldn’t have known, things my college counselor didn’t tell me.” - student at Variety Boys & Girls Club in Boyle Heights about ambassador Karina Cruz ’22
Not meeting with students in person was a big change for her. She had been going to the club three or four times a week, editing personal statements for scholarship applications. She continued to help them online, but she missed the personal interaction. “The students felt comfortable asking me what college was really like,” Cruz said, “and I enjoyed our conversations.”
“When I was in high school, we had a student ambassador from Mount Saint Mary’s. She was an amazing mentor and inspired me to do the same thing for other girls.” - Michelle Montiel '21
However, there are some advantages to working online. “I still meet virtually with my seniors one-on-one and my juniors as a class online,” says Montiel. “I especially want the juniors to be prepared to apply when colleges open for applications in the fall, so I’m making PowerPoints for them to watch. And while I only had 40 juniors in the live class I taught, now that we are online all 80 juniors have signed up to receive the information. I see that as a definite advantage.”
Priscilla Gonzalez ’21, an ambassador at Sacred Heart High School, found that the flexibility of meeting online worked better for many students. “When I was at my site, it was often challenging to pull students out of class,” she says. “Now, I have students emailing me on their own schedules.”
“Student ambassadors have a genuine care and passion to serve others, and it shows in how they responded during this difficult time,” says Guzman. “It’s rare for students to put others before their own needs. The ambassadors are going above and beyond to make sure their students have all the tools and resources they need to be successful.”