Students faced some unprecedented challenges this past year—from e-Learning to socializing virtually with classmates, it was quite an adjustment. Knowing the obstacles many of our local students were facing, Orange County United Way developed a new, completely virtual e-Mentoring Program to assist high school seniors with the college application process and provide students with a support system as they took the next steps to continue their education.
The Class of 2021 e-Mentoring Program (part of our United for Student Success initiative) paired students with a mentor, offered virtual educational workshops, and provided a laptop and technology kit to each student who successfully completed the program and graduated from high school.
We had a chance to follow up with some of the students who participated and were so pleased to hear about their positive experiences. Here are some of the Class of 2021 e-Mentoring Program Success Stories:
Helping her family has always been important to Isabel. When she was just six years old, her mother suffered from a stroke and Isabel began taking care of her baby sister and assisting with chores around the house. Isabel soon realized, however, that she could help her family through her education.
In middle school, Isabel was learning at a high school level and she continued to excel in her studies as a freshman—so much so that she was on track to graduate two years early. “[The idea of graduating early] was a little scary, but I decided to do it because I see education as an outlet to help myself, my family, and my community.”
When the pandemic hit, however, Isabel faced several unexpected obstacles. “The sudden shift to eLearning was difficult. Our Internet wasn’t the greatest so I would miss out on a lot of the lessons. I tried to reach out for other resources—like hotspots—but it wasn’t easy.” It was especially hard to juggle online classes from her family’s one bedroom apartment while also keeping up with all of her other responsibilities, which included caring for her mom, helping her 9-year-old sister with homework, and looking for resources they could use for food and bills after her dad contracted COVID-19 this past December. “He is the breadwinner of our family so it was a difficult two weeks while he was sick.”
As a first generation student, Isabel will be the first one in her family to attend college, which means she didn’t have anyone to ask about the application process. Luckily, while volunteering with Orange County United Way in the fall of 2020, Isabel heard about the e-Mentoring Program and decided to participate. She was excited about the workshops being offered and found the assistance invaluable. The program helped her grow as a person and, as a result, she’s now more organized and positive. Isabel’s mentor, Krystie Daley (Office Supervisor at Grant Thornton), encouraged her to stay motivated. “She was really supportive and helped me through some rough patches—and she made me proud of what I’ve done,” said Isabel. “It’s empowering to have someone I can count on and learn from—especially as a first generation student.”
In the spring of 2021, Isabel graduated two years early—something that has never been done at her high school before. She is set to attend UCLA in the fall and plans to major in Political Science and Chicana/o Studies and minor in Spanish. After college, she intends to go to law school and become an immigration attorney. “I’d like to help my community and, maybe, run for office one day. Advocacy is important to me.”
Isabel hopes that other students take advantage of United Way’s opportunities and resources. “As I got to know the Orange County United Way team, I could see their dedication to helping the community. The Class of 2021 e-Mentoring Program helped me to keep going and not give up. Especially during my second semester—there were lots of decisions I had to make about college and money was something I had to consider—it got to me. The program reinforced the idea that I can do it and I should continue forward because my community is cheering me on.”
At the start of the pandemic, Alexies took on extra responsibilities at home helping her younger siblings while their mother and grandmother worked. She fed them and made sure they were attending their online classes while still trying to keep up with her own studies. After several weeks of this, however, her mom and grandmother both lost their jobs.
“I was doing a lot of thinking about how to pay for college—it’s not affordable for a lot of people and our college savings had to be used when they lost their jobs. I still wanted to pursue college, but knew I might have to take a gap year,” Alexies shared.
Alexies decided to participate in the e-Mentoring Program and quickly realized she wasn’t alone in her concerns. “Many of the other mentees had the same questions that I had about applying to college and most of us had the same fears as well.”
Initially, Alexies worried what the e-Mentoring Program would be like—would it feel strange to be paired with a mentor? But, she quickly discovered that she and her mentor, Dana, actually had a lot in common. “During our first Zoom meeting, I learned that we love the same shows. It was so amazing that I was able to connect with this person and was able to open up to her.”
Alexies was relieved to have a mentor she trusted to answer some of her questions about the future. “We migrated when I was 11 so I didn’t want to make my mum feel bad about not knowing things [about college.]”
In addition to building confidence in her essay writing abilities, the program taught Alexies valuable life skills. She especially enjoyed the budget workshop, which she found very useful and eye opening. Another advantage of the program that Alexies found to be extremely beneficial was the laptop she received. Alexies had always used the school computer, but was unable to do so during the pandemic. Gaining that resource was a game-changer for her. “If you don’t have a laptop [for school], you already have a disadvantage. This program has taken a big weight off of my shoulders—I feel relieved.”
Alexies graduated on June 10, 2021 and will attend Cornell University in the fall with plans to study biology and public health. Although this will be her first time away from her family, Alexies is comforted knowing that she has gained knowledge and tools to help her moving forward and, if needed, she has a mentor she can reach out to as well.
“Orange County United Way is working together to build a better future by providing a program we don’t usually have at school: Learning what to do after you graduate,” Alexies said. “Having a mentor is really helpful too—especially for those who don’t have access to resources and opportunities. This program encourages every student to go for it and makes you believe that you can [go to college] if you want to.”
Congratulations to Alexies, Isabel, and the entire Class of 2021 e-Mentoring Program participants! We are so proud of you and wish you all the best in your future endeavors!
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