Last month, we celebrated a significant milestone in our first full year of our Community College Success Initiative with the completion of our first United Way of Greater Los Angeles Mentorship Program with a very special event, filled with inspirational stories and memorable experiences. 

Mentors and mentees shared that the program helped them find ways to be successful in college, their careers and develop other life skills.  

Most of the mentees are first-generation college students of color. For many of them, this was their first opportunity to have a mentor, whom they met with monthly to engage in one-on-one activities such as getting guidance to improve their resumes and learn how to approach and be better prepared for a job interview.  They also received guidance from experts on how to enroll in the right classes to pursue the degree of their choice and about other topics such as financial literacy and how to use their cultural wealth. 

Joy Brown is a current student at Los Angeles Community College (LACC), who waited 20 years to pursue higher education. She shared that this program has helped her overcome her insecurities and fears about her college journey. 

Among other things, Joy mentioned that the stipend she received paired with the connections with other mentors and mentees who share similar experiences made a real positive impact on her. 

Mentees Joy Brown (right) and Akilah Saalam.

“There is plenty of diversity, people from all walks of life, ages, backgrounds, learning disabilities, so there’s always going to be somebody like you, who looks like you, and that was just a great thing,” Joy said. “I know mentioning the stipend may be a little shallow, but when you need to figure out where your next meal is coming from, the stipend, and the raffles are something exciting.”  

She also noted that “as a first-gen student, you don’t really have anybody to go to and learn how to get the right classes and get grants and stuff like that, how to manage your money. That is why this is a great program!” 

The Mentorship Program is part of the UWGLA Community Colleges Success Initiative, which has a goal of doubling the community college graduation rate for BIPOC students in the L.A. region. The initiative includes mentorship, academic support, financial assistance, and policy strategies.  

The initiative aims to connect students to essential resources such as housing and food assistance through the Student Success Fund program and the annual Community College Resource Fair, to ensure students can successfully transfer to a 4-year college or complete a technical degree.  

Norma Rodriguez, UWGLA Director of Ownership & Prosperity, understands the challenges that come with navigating higher education as a first-generation college student of color. 

UWGLA’s Norma Rodriguez (left) and Erin Morton.

“I had to learn the hard way how to navigate the education system on my own. Programs like this are what I would have wanted for myself and for my peers, and now being able to offer this to other students of color is deeply personal and fulfilling,” Norma said. “The mentorship program, the academic fair, and the hardship fund are key strategies that have shown promising results in supporting students with backgrounds like mine.” 

Norma noted the importance of having a hardship fund available to community college students is crucial as many of them are just one emergency away from having to drop out. “We created a hardship fund that students can apply to and get some extra dollars that they might not get with financial aid because it can be the only way to stay in college and be more likely to transfer and graduate.”  

Jason Gamez, an LACC student and one of the mentees in the program, shared that he has successfully transferred to Loyola Marymount University and that what he learned through the program strongly supported him in the process. 

“I didn’t know how to navigate, what profession I wanted to pursue, and definitely having a mentor, knowing that they have a similar background being first-generation students definitely gave me confidence,” Jason said.  

Other mentees from this first cohort also transferred to a university this semester, including Jose Morales, who was accepted to transfer to UCLA, and Wendell Jenkins, who plans to transfer to UC Riverside in the fall.  

Destinee Rivera also celebrated being accepted to an internship with Kaiser Permanente thanks to the program.  

“I’ll be working under the surgical services unit. It will be computer science-based, so I’ll be helping make programs QR codes, update systems, and work with the nurses to help them expand their knowledge of computer science. This is definitely one of the best things I got out of the mentorship program,” Destinee said. 

Destinee’s mom, Alejandra Rodriguez, was also a mentee in the program. She shared that joining this program together was a big plus as it made their mother-daughter relationship stronger. 

“It’s been really great and fun! I could see my mom in a new light. I see her as a different person. She’s just a girl like me, we’re just trying to figure out the world together. She has two kids and she’s just trying to make it better, and I know she’s achieved a lot with this program,” Destinee said.  

Mentors also celebrated the rewards that come with supporting their mentees. Akhi Nisha Anish was a mentor who volunteered through our corporate partnership with EY. Nearly 60% of the mentors who volunteer for the program are employees at corporate partner companies including EY, Bank of America, JPL, Black & Veatch, and PNC. KPMG also facilitated one of the sessions. 

Katherine Byrne, volunteer mentor with Bank of America.

“I think the program has been absolutely wonderful. It definitely surpassed all my expectations. Throughout the whole experience, it was extremely well organized. For me, it was very fulfilling and motivating,” Akhi said. He described how working with his mentee, Tyron Mckinley, was an inspiring experience. 

“We started off the first session with some smart goals. He thought about which classes he wanted to take to achieve certification and get the job eventually, and then we had different sessions to develop your personal brand and then finally, the resume review. Hopefully, I gave him some good tips that he can use to refine his resume a little bit and just make it a little bit more marketable for employers.” 

Tyrone has shared with us that he is currently working in the same field as his mentor Akhi. 

Juan Diaz-Carreras, a Senior Client Service Director at Black & Veatch, was also a volunteer mentor who joined the program through United Way’s partnership with his company. 

Juan emphasized the importance of understanding the needs and experiences of younger generations and providing guidance to help them achieve their goals. 

Juan Diaz-Carreras’ mentee Yanitzi Zuniga.

“The myth of the self-made person just does not exist. We’ve all gotten some help to get to where we are. I had people who helped me along the way and I’m grateful for those people that showed up at just the right time,” Diaz-Carreras said. “So, it’s rewarding to be able to hopefully be a little piece of that for somebody else, to give that back to the world just how I received it. I hope it really helps my mentee (Yanitzi Zuniga) get to where she wants to go. 

Martha Maciel Serratos, Education Officer for United Way L.A. and manager of the program said she hopes the second cohort can be expanded to other community colleges in addition to the current partnership with LACC (Los Angeles Community College) and LATTC (Los Angeles Trade Technical College) 

UWGLA’s Martha Maciel Serratos, manager of the Mentorship Program.

“We want to expand the number of mentees we serve at each college. We launched the program in January, and we started intentionally small because we wanted to assess this pilot program so we can improve it next semester and make it grow.” 

To learn more about the Mentorship Program, visit here. If you are interested in volunteering as a mentor or having your company sponsor the program, please reach out to docana@unitedwayla.org. 

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