Desirae Vega, a senior at the University of Washington Bothell, first started volunteering at Henry M. Jackson High School to fulfill her degree requirements. Serving as a tutor for the AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination), she planned lessons, presentations and activities to help the students get ready for college.
What she couldn’t have planned, however, was the meaningful relationships she would form. In the six months Vega worked with the high school students, she became much more than just their tutor. She became their “mentor, role model and friend,” her students said.
Their words were especially moving for Vega who, for as long as she can remember, has wanted to follow in her mom’s footsteps and become a teacher.
“It was touching to learn what an impact I had on them,” she said. “As someone in the educational field, that’s exactly what I hope for — to give students not just knowledge but also confidence, grit or even, a dream.”
Connected to the classroom
While many young people complain about school, Desirae Vega only seemed to fall further in love with it as time went on.
“I spent every day after school in my mom’s classroom, and I loved it. I never wanted to leave. I mean, 20 years later — and I still don’t. I’m in school as an Educational Studies major and plan on being in the classroom until I retire,” she said.
As an AVID tutor, she shared this enthusiasm for learning and for college with the students at Jackson High School. “I wanted to inspire them to dream big while also teaching them how to make those dreams a reality,” she said.
She connected with the school through UW Bothell’s Community-Based Learning Program. Designed to be a mutually beneficial exchange with community partners, the CBLR program gives students a chance to apply theory to practice, develop professional experience and contribute to the public good.
“It’s about getting UW Bothell students out in the community and applying what we learn in our classes to the real world,” Vega explained. “After all, what’s the point of having knowledge if you don’t use it?”
Breaking down barriers
Due to COVID-19 and remote operations, Vega attended the high school’s sessions through video conference. Despite the physical distance, she was able to cultivate a close-knit community. In only a few weeks, the students felt safe to share their thoughts and feelings.
“They talked to me about their futures: college, careers and other aspirations,” she said. “As their tutor and mentor, I helped them figure out things they could do each day that would bring them one step closer to their goal, such as registering for the SATS/ACTS or finding scholarships.”
Daniel Cardona, one of Vega’s students, testified to how powerful this was for him and his classmates. “I really appreciated that she taught us what to do now, as high school students, to prepare for university,” he said. “College can seem overwhelming and far off, but she broke it down to simple tasks we can start doing today which feels much more manageable.”
In addition to knowledge, Vega also gave her students confidence. “Before I met Desirae, I was afraid to talk in class,” said student Leonel Davila Jimenez. “But she helped me realize my thoughts matter and are worth speaking. She had a really big impact on me.”
This was also true for student Taylor Hedglin, but the reason was different. “I really admired and looked up to her,” Hedglin explained. “She was a kind, caring mentor who was always there for me and all of my classmates. I was in a time of loneliness from being strictly online and was tired of doing the same thing each day. Desirae and her class made going to a school a little easier.
“By the end of the semester, I could call Desirae a number of things: mentor, tutor, volunteer — I could even call her my friend.”
A mentor’s mission
Vega said giving these teenagers a purpose, and the confidence to pursue it, was the whole point of her mentorship.
“I didn’t want them to give up before they even started,” she said. “I wanted them to know that it’s good to dream big and that there are people like me who want to help them chase those dreams until they are a reality.
“The greatest obstacle we must overcome to reach success is our own self-doubt,” she said. “I hope that by believing in the students, they start to believe in themselves, too. I may not be their tutor anymore, but I will always be their champion.”