Though schools throughout Los Angeles, including Mount Saint Mary’s University, are closed, Mount community student ambassadors are working remotely to ensure Los Angeles high school students stay on track with college applications.
When the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced on March 13 that schools would be closing due to the coronavirus, Mount student Michelle Montiel’s first thought was not about herself; it was about the students at Bishop Conaty–Our Lady of Loretto High School where she works as a community student ambassador.
“When first I heard, I immediately thought of my students, my kids,” says Montiel ’21. “This year, we bonded as I worked together with them and their parents to apply to colleges. A few students were undocumented, and we had to fill out the Dream Act. One was waiting for a green card. I knew they would still need help even if the school was closed.”
Since 1991, the Community Student Ambassador Program has partnered with local schools and community organizations to motivate inner-city high school students to aspire to a college education. For the past 29 years, the ambassadors have always met with students in person. However, the new California mandates for school closures and social distancing have changed the educational landscape. For the student ambassadors to continue their work, it would require innovation and commitment.
Naturally, Mount Saint Mary’s community student ambassadors rose to the challenge.
All ten ambassadors are continuing their work online, connecting with high school students in new and creative ways.
“I wasn’t surprised the community student ambassadors still wanted to work with their sites,” says Karla Guzman ’13, assistant director of Women’s Leadership and Community Engagement, who oversees the Community Student Ambassador Program. “As an alum and a former ambassador, I know what the work means to the students. They feel a huge sense of commitment to the students they have been working with all year. They have invested a lot and I knew they would want to finish the year.”
Before the closures, Kimberly Ganivet ’20 was giving workshops to 60 students at a time on topics such as the Cal State application process, the SAT, and the FAFSA, and meeting individually with students to work on their college applications at Franklin High School.
“I would look up from my notebook and see a line of 25 more kids waiting to be helped,” Ganivet says. “Like many students at Franklin, I am also a first generation college student, and I had to figure out the application process on my own. It’s an overwhelming process, and I was happy to help.”
Thankfully, at the time of the closures, students were already through the application process and all that remained was to choose a school.
“But I worried about their financial aid,” says Ganivet. “A lot didn’t understand the financial aid options being offered to them. What if they made the wrong decision?”
Motivated to help students through the financial aid process, the first thing Ganivet did was create was create a step-by-step flyer for students to use after they receive their acceptance letter. Then she made another flyer on how to find scholarships and one on tips for staying organized during the application process that she shared with Franklin’s college counselor.
Ganivet and other community student ambassadors are also currently making 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, how to submit a FAFSA, and how to write personal statements. It’s something the program can give to the college counselor to help her next year.”
Community student ambassadors also serve high school students at community partner sites. Karina Cruz ’22 works at the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Boyle Heights. She now spends her time helping her supervisor develop online programming for club members through Zoom, researching scholarships and keeping students up-to-date on which colleges extended their acceptance deadlines.
Not meeting with students in person is a big change for her. “I would go to the Boys & Girls Club three to four times a week,” she says. “We were editing their personal statements for scholarship applications. Now I help them edit their statements online. But I enjoyed hearing feedback from students in person. One student said, ‘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.’ They students felt comfortable asking me what college was really like, and I enjoyed our conversations.”
The ambassadors are finding 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 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, a community student ambassador at Sacred Heart High School, has found that the flexibility of meeting online works better for students. “When I was at my site, it was often challenging to pull students out of class,” says. “Now, I have students emailing me on their own schedule. It works, but it still is not as good as in person communication.”
Not communicating in person is a common frustration to working in this new online forum.
“When you communicate in person, students can ask a follow-up questions,” says Montiel. “I find myself writing lengthy emails in order to make my point for fear that they will misunderstand me or the college terms I am using. It was easier in person to make sure they weren’t confused.”
Montiel felt especially connected to her students because Bishop Conaty–Our Lady of Loretto is her alma mater. “When I was in high school, we had a student ambassador from Mount Saint Mary’s at my school,” she says. “She dedicated her time to work with first generation students like myself who did not know what to do with application process. She was an amazing mentor and inspired me to become a student ambassador. I wanted to do the same thing for other girls who are also first generation students.”
And the saddest part for all of the community student ambassadors is that they didn’t get to say goodbye. “Hopefully I will be back at the Boys & Girls Club site next year, but some of my students are graduating, so I will not see them again,” says Cruz.
“Community 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 who are also having to transition to online education to want to put other students before their own needs. I know they are going above and beyond to make sure the students have all the tools and resources they need to be successful.”
“I saw students really struggling and parents unsure of what to do,” says Montiel. “I always went out of my way to advocate for the students. I’m thankful I can still be of help.”