This fall marks the beginning of two extremely promising teaching careers. Andrea Magaña and Yessenia Lopez, both graduates of Lehman College and Let’s Get Ready alumni, have each started their work with Teach for America in Western Massachusetts. Their journey from classmates at New Rochelle High School to colleagues working for educational equity is a testament to the power of near-peer mentoring.
The pair formed a bond while working together at Let’s Get Ready as College Access Coaches in New Rochelle, providing students from low-income backgrounds with free SAT prep and college application guidance. 91% of the high school students that work with Let’s Get Ready get into college.
Yessenia and Andrea come from similar backgrounds–Andrea immigrated as a child with her family from Mexico to New Rochelle, New York. Yessenia is a first-generation American of Mexican descent; when she was young, her mother was deported, so she returned to Mexico until she finished middle school before moving back up to New Rochelle. Both of their families were adamant that they attend college, but getting into a school that fit their talents meant competing against students with private tutors and counselors.
“My parents made many sacrifices so I could obtain a better education,” says Yessenia. “They never went to college, but they always made it clear that it was the best way to succeed. My mother would always tell me that no one could take away my education or knowledge.”
“I wasn’t able to attend the ‘fancy’ SAT courses my other friends were taking at the time,” says Andrea. “My counselor suggested looking into Let’s Get Ready and its free summer SAT course.”
As rising seniors, Yessenia and Andrea worked with Let’s Get Ready’s volunteer Coaches, college students that had recently gone through the admissions process themselves. They tightened up their test-taking skills as they learned about what went into determining a well-matched school – how to weigh financial demands against academic goals and campus life.
Though they knew each other in high school, they didn’t find out they were both going to Lehman until they bumped into each other at orientation. In high school they had only known each other as classmates, but at Lehman their friendship blossomed.
As they finished their sophomore year at Lehman, Let’s Get Ready contacted Andrea and Yessenia about becoming Coaches themselves, an opportunity that they eagerly accepted. Working at the New Rochelle High School site, Andrea served as a math Coach and Yessenia focused on the verbal sections.
Trepidation gave way to early success. “I worried that because I looked relatively young, the students would not take me seriously,” says Yessenia. “That was not the case. As the days passed I learned more about my students and their learning styles. Showing students you care and you’re there for them allows them to trust you.”
“I wanted to make sure every young person from an underrepresented community knows that it’s okay for them to be themselves,” says Andrea. “That it’s okay to be different, and that it’s okay to celebrate this and share it with the world.”
While Yessenia and Andrea worked to help others to and through college, near-peer mentors continued to support them as they earned their degrees. Let’s Get Ready’s College Success Program helped them make a smooth transition to freshman year, kept them updated on what to expect at school, and informed them of career events. “I received a lot of support, not only for my work with mentees, but also for my own academic and professional growth,” says Yessenia. “Let’s Get Ready helped me improve my time management, organization, and communication skills.”
After working as College Access Coaches, Andrea and Yessenia continued to serve Let’s Get Ready. During their junior year, they worked as Success Coaches at NYU’s Metro Center for Education, mentoring their underclassmen and helping them acclimate to college-going culture.
Next, they worked as College Access Site Directors back in New Rochelle, overseeing the College Access Coaches who provided direct mentoring and SAT prep. During senior year, they served as Success Site Directors, managing the Lehman-based site that advised Let’s Get Ready’s local college students.
The opportunity to join Teach For America spoke to both Andrea and Yessenia, each of them acquainted with the joys of being an educator. “I knew I’d enjoy Teach For America because I liked my experiences at Let’s Get Ready,” says Andrea. “Teach For America allows me to continue to work with students from similar backgrounds to mine, whom I can motivate to achieve great things.”
Andrea is now teaching middle school math in the Springfield and Holyoke area. “Having worked two-to-three jobs every semester since freshman year, hitting many bumps in the road, and being a first-generation college student, seeing the end product is a very rewarding thing,” she says. “I just want to continue the amazing work Let’s Get Ready allowed me to do, and to impact more students’ lives for the better.”
Yessenia started Teach For America at Holyoke, teaching English language arts (ELA) to fifth graders. “I believe everyone should have the right to the best education, no matter what their parents’ income may be,” she says. “Being the first in my family to attend college, I know how hard it can get. But I also know that furthering my education has allowed me to help others in my community.”