Monday, May 2, 2016

Ramona Mora - SMART Goes to College Speech 2016


Ramona with her mother
While most seventeen-year-olds are focused on the college application process; I spent my junior year helping my family through an eviction. The building we have lived in since I was born was bought by a new owner who wanted to take advantage of my parents’ limited language skills to kick us out. My parents immigrated from Mexico when they were in their early teens. My dad only attended third grade and drove a truck, my mother attended middle school and took care of our family. Despite their own lack of education, they believed that it was the key to their children’s successes - their dream was for me to be the first in my family to graduate from college. They sacrificed everything to make this possible.

Yet, because of their long work hours and limited language skills, they depended on me - the oldest in the household - to take on a lot of adult responsibilities. I found myself too often arguing with the new owners of the building, defending my family against the heartless tactics they were taking. In the midst of this crisis, my dad suffered an injury on the job and was no longer able to work, even though he was the sole provider for our family.  We had to rely only on his disability check, which had to cover bills, tuition, and all other essential expenses.

The task of having to look for a place to live was exhausting and soul crushing, at one point my dad thought that our only option would be to move to Vallejo or Richmond. My sister and I would have to transfer out of our current schools, and the thought of leaving Drew was unbearable. I worked hard to earn a spot at Drew, a school that has provided me with the privilege of a new way of learning. I was taught how to think critically, I was made more aware of the world around me through service trips they offered, and I have an incredible community of friends and teachers. I was heartbroken about the potential of leaving Drew, but most of all - I was devastated at the possibility of having to leave SMART.

When I think of family, I think of SMART. It has been my second home during the last 8 years of my life. This community has been with me through the smallest and biggest moments of my life. They supported my transition into Live Oak School and Drew School, gave me moral support when I got my first haircut ever, and celebrated with me when I received my college acceptances. When I was younger, my parents sought out opportunities to help my sister and me and when they came across the SMART Program they could not believe the opportunities that the program offered. SMART’s support and everything they have provided for me are priceless. I am certain that I would not have been able to go through the personal hardships I faced last year, when I felt I couldn’t accomplish my dreams, without their support.

As the eviction process moved on, I watched helplessly as construction workers began destroying walls, wires, and changed locks. With the walls, they were tearing down my childhood memories - where I played imaginary games with my cousins and stories were shared with family. They were literally destroying my home and my sense of security. I tried to be the strong, mature adult around my parents that they needed me to be, but I felt vulnerable. I cried often in my school bathroom, just wanting to be a normal teenager - but feeling alone having to face these atypical challenges. I cared about my grades, but I also cared about having a place to live. The emotional safety that SMART and my counselor’s office afforded me were my only light during such a dark moment of my life. Miraculously, a month before our eviction due date, my dad found a decent place to live in Daly City. My family was the last to move out of our building. 

Ramona before giving her speech
The new place is a remodeled garage, with one room, one bathroom, and an extension, which houses a mattress for my parents to sleep in and a hot plate where we cook our food. The "apartment" does not have a stove or an oven. It has been difficult to get accustomed to the new living space, but I remind myself that a year ago, the stress I had felt over not being able to find a place to live, was incredibly overwhelming, and I would not want to go back to those times. I am just immensely grateful to have a roof over my head and a place to sleep at night. 

Although the eviction was the most difficult event that has happened to me, I feel grateful for the experience.  My parents were never able to give me material things, but they taught me to have strong morals and values including hard work, determination and resilience, which I recognize now as skillsets that helped me get through this experience. I learned that it is possible to overcome a deep sense of defeat when you are surrounded by supportive family and community. 


I am proud that I maintained a 4.0 GPA, while taking challenging AP and honors courses. I participated in extracurriculars at school such as the badminton team and a myriad of clubs. I continued to challenge myself outside of school. I enrolled in a Latino Diaspora class at city college. I participated in a leadership conference for Latino youth at UC Berkeley. I now have skills that will be invaluable to me through college and beyond. The eviction taught me to be resilient and perseverant while going through a difficult emotional time. I learned how to multi-task; being focused at school while also being emotionally supportive to my parents. And, I learned how to self-advocate. It helped define me as the independent young woman I am today.

I stand here before you today, soon to be the first in my family to graduate high school. This last year I applied to 14 colleges and I am beyond excited to start a new chapter of my life at my #1 choice school, UC Davis, next year. Earlier this month, my parents and my sister joined me in visiting the UC Davis campus and I have to admit I was a little mortified by my parents’ excitement. They seemed more giddy than I was about being a student there. My mom took so many selfies. My dad got so emotional that he had to "get something from the car" too many times.

My SMART family provided me with the tools necessary to be successful at school, and supported me emotionally as I faced immense challenges. I am forever grateful to them and their role in my success today. As an example of their never ending badgering, SMART’s college counselor Karla told me to apply to a program that I was sure was going to waste my time. She gave me encouragement, revised my essays, harassed me by phone and texts to meet the deadlines that at one point I almost blocked her from my phone. Just last week I received a large packet in the mail. Convinced that they were sending me a t-shirt as a consolation prize for a rejection, I opened the packet upside down and this piece of paper fell out:

"We welcome Ramona Mora as a Gates Millennium Scholar of 2016."

The Gates Millennium Scholars program had 53,000 applicants and I am one of the 1,000 scholars to receive leadership development programs and most importantly allow me to graduate college without any loans. Through this program, I intend to major in political science and pursue a law degree, and I look forward to coming back as a successful immigration lawyer, and to be a role model for future generations of SMART Scholars.

Thank you for allowing me to share my story, for your support for this incredible program, and thank you SMART.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Why Do I Want to Go to College? (A SoCal College Tour Reflection)

"Because knowledge is something worth investing in. Power and money can come and go just as fast. But knowledge is something that once you learn it, you won't forget it." - SMART Senior


The journey began this summer with 38 high school Scholars and 4 SMART staff members for a five-day college tour of Southern California.

Excited to begin the drive down to SoCal!

Scholars first started out at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. During this time, they had a chance to explore the beautiful campus during an interactive scavenger hunt. On the second day, they enjoyed an admission presentation and tour of UC Santa Barbara. They also had a chance to visit Cal Poly Pomona and Claremont McKenna. Afterwards, students and staff journeyed over to San Diego State, which was a very popular college choice for our Scholars! They deeply enjoyed the diversity present at this location. They had the opportunity to talk to an admissions officer from USD and learned all about the application process, financial aid opportunities, research, and everything else the campus had to offer. Afterwards, they drove straight to UC Irvine for the last college tour. On this tour, Scholars learned that 50% of their admitted class of 2019 is first-gen!

Claremont McKenna

Enjoying diversity at USD

At the beginning of the tour, students were concerned about not being able to pay for the right college, letting their parents down, and leaving home. During this transformational experience, they learned about the challenges that can make attaining a college degree difficult for a first-generation student, but they were also given some time to reflect on the concerns they had.

Some reflections included the following:
  • "I learned that I am not alone in going through the struggle of being a first-gen student. I'm not the only one who is scared or who worries about their future."
  • "I learned that the odds are stacked against me, but I won't let that hold me back. I want to go to college because I can make a difference for myself and my community."
  • "I learned that I have the skills and strengths to be college-worthy and that I won't have to do it alone. I have many resources that I can take advantage of and SMART will be there to help me."
At the end of the tour, students left feeling empowered and strengthened by the belief that they have the resources and ability to pursue their dreams of higher education.

Below are three paragraphs from a reflection by Xio Grande Meza after the tour:

Personally, I can not speak as a first-gen college student. I can, however, speak as a lower-middle-class Latina student. To me, it means not always being given what you want and sometimes need. To me, it means I will always have to prove myself, to go beyond what is expected of me. It means I will have to work hard for things other people take for granted. I will have to go through struggles that not everyone faces, but I know that's okay because it will only make me stronger...
...After this college tour, I feel ready to take on junior year. I had lost my motivation sophomore year and have been waiting for the realization to hit me that school is important. After this tour, I have found that motivation. I want to be someone who all of a sudden is a "do-er", someone who has a voice at school and is involved with things, someone who is passionate, and disregards what friends might think. I am not going to let schoolmates hold me back or treat me like I'm not good enough. I am nervous but excited for this year to start!
...I want to go to college because whenever we go to a university that I like, I start smiling about the possibilities. I want to go to college because I want to further my education and be a role model for other young girls of color. I want to make my grandparents proud.

Summer at SMART

This summer, our Scholars maximized their learning time by participating in rigorous academic programming four days a week and science-based field trips every Friday. Here's a recap of everything we've accomplished!


Scholars excited to be at Summer Program
This June and July, our Academic Summer Enrichment Program for rising 5th and 6th graders continued to expand to include 74 students at Mission Dolores Academy. We served 43 rising 5th graders: all of them applicants to SMART, allowing us to assess their fit for our programming while providing academic support. There were also 31 students in the rising 6th grade class, most of whom will begin their middle school experience at one of our partner schools in the fall. Students participated in math, English Language Arts, science, and history curriculum Mondays to Thursdays. On Fridays, they looked forward to exploring the Bay Area on science and environmentally-focused field trips (including excursions to the California Academy of Sciences and even to a laboratory at the University of Berkeley).

Students were divided into five classrooms, each with a credentialed teacher and a SMART staff member. Teachers joined us from Marin County Day School, The Hamlin School, Katherine Delmar Burke School, and various Bay Area public school classrooms. We were lucky to have such a stellar teaching staff - thank you for sharing your teachers with us! Some of our own SMART high school students also served as interns and elective teachers.

Tiffany on her first day of Barnard
SMART also provides services to help high school Scholars locate summer internships or learning experiences to further accelerate academic development and foster career skills necessary to make the transition to college. Tiffany, a rising senior, received a scholarship through Wishbone to participate in Entrepreneurs-in-Training. This was a 11-day program at Barnard College that focuses on developing business skills in high school girls. Tiffany worked on developing her own venture, building public speaking skills, and learned other facets of becoming a successful entrepreneur. Another scholar, Linda, participated in a pre-college course at Brown University focused on "Evil: The History of an Idea". This once-in-a-lifetime experience provided her with a deeper understanding of ethics, social class, and persecution in history, and developed skills necessary for analytical college humanities courses. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Alfredo Rodas: Senior Speaker at SGTC 2015


In 4th grade, my favorite teacher, Ms. Jimena, a name I will never forget, announced she was leaving to teach at an all-boys private school.  Apparently seeing potential in me, she asked my mother if she was interested in sending me there as well. My mother enthusiastically said yes.

When I was told I would be leaving Bryant elementary, I vividly remember feeling confused and honestly distraught about two things.

One, I was never going to see my friends again. And Two, I was never going to see a girl again.

My mom could only tell me that this was a great opportunity, although in hindsight, we didn’t know what that meant.

My parents are incredibly supportive, wonderful, and hard-working individuals. They are immigrants who came to this country to pursue their “American Dream” – which to them meant giving their children the power to define their own futures. They just didn’t know how to make that possible. With the support of Ms. Jimena and Cathedral School for Boys, I also entered SMART that same year.

SMART feels like no other organization or community that I know. While their goals are similar to other programs, it’s the internal peer-support – I call it “therapy group” - and their special attention to us as individuals that changed everything for me. We are in an environment filled with peers in similar situations to deal with this HUGE transition together. My class, in particular, witnessed a lot of organizational change and growth within SMART—specifically when they launched their College Access Program. I think it says a lot that, when given the opportunity to stay with SMART through high school, we all jumped at the chance to stay connected.

The support that SMART gave me was crucial to developing my academic and personal confidence and if it wasn’t for the staff, I know one hundred percent that I would not be here. For example, last year, I learned about the challenges of being a first-generation college student.  Only 24% of us are expected to graduate college. That information alone would have been disheartening if it wasn’t for the fact that SMART coupled this workshop with ways to leverage our own strengths and provided us with tools to ensure our success.

Through SMART’s College Tours program, I visited over 20 colleges throughout California. Being on an actual college campus helped all of us envision ourselves as college students, and that felt so exciting. One sunny and excruciating hot day in SoCal, we walked onto a UC campus and I just felt IT. “IT” is so hard to explain in words, but my gut feeling told me that this was the school for me. Doing more research on their rigorous academics, support services, and discovering an Ethnic Studies program – my favorite class in high school this year – solidified my belief. SMART calls it my “AHA” moment.


While the values of SMART are too many to list here, one of the most important lessons SMART taught me was that I deserve all of the experiences I have had, that I belong in the schools that may sometimes feel unattainable, and that all the struggles and baddies I have faced was worth it.

I will leave SMART with the confidence that I am ready for the real world. .I am proud of myself for thriving in an environment where I didn't have a financial advantage, and where I was the first person to go through the process of considering college in my family. I was blessed to have the added pressure of having a sibling a grade below me who is observing very attentively my pursuit of higher education. I aspire to be a role model for him and even my future children.

Thank you mom and dad, who could not be here tonight because they have to work. Your sacrifices, sweat and tears will not go unnoticed and I will work hard to be your American Dream. Also, because she’s not here, I will tell you that my mom is always right and the smartest woman I know.

My name is Alfredo Rodas, I am a graduating senior from Urban High School, a proud graduate of Cathedral School for Boys and Bryant Elementary School, and I will be attending my first choice school - UC Riverside – next year.

Thank you for all of your support for this amazing program.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Izzy Garcia - Step Up Speech 2015

Izzy (center) with her parents
As I reflect upon my time as a SMART student, I am reminded of  the endless amount of events, experiences, resources, interactions, and people that have contributed to making my time here at SMART one of the most rewarding and unforgettable experiences of my 18 years. 

However, there are far too many memories and moments that can wholly define our experiences here at SMART. From wearing fancy uniforms in middle school everyday, to our favorite outings to the park in front of City Hall, to moving into a new SMART office a grand total of 3 times, to CAP socials, to those dreadful test prep classes, to the Socal college tour, and more, these memories would not have been as significant if I had not shared them with my peers. You guys are part of the reason why I chose to join the College Access Program after we graduated middle school. I knew that the bond we first created as 9, 10 and 11- year-olds was something that I did not want to give up. Thankfully, it has flourished ever since.  

I can recall that very first day of SMART. I remember standing on the white stone steps, between two detailed white columns, underneath a ledge that read The Hamlin School in gold letters. I was dressed in brand new white sneakers, a crisp navy pleated skirt, a weird white top that resembled a sailor shirt (called a midi), and a carefully ironed tie that hung from my neck. My hands grew sweaty from clenching my backpack straps and my foot tapped impatiently as I waited outside my school for the infamous SMART bus. 

I remember the butterflies in my stomach once the clock struck 4pm. I was excited and nervous  to discover what SMART was all about. Finally, a rather small yellow school bus turned the corner, and made a screech with its brakes when it finally made a stop in front of the Hamlin mansion. “This is the bus we’re going to be picked up in?!” I thought to myself. I looked to my left, I looked to my right, saw no one in sight and then I rapidly jumped on. The narrow brown plastic seats that only fit one to two people and the smell of rubber seemed inviting. I saw familiar faces on this bus and also some that I hadn’t seen before in my life. Not even 5 minutes into the bus ride, did it come to my surprise that I heard kids on the bus start talking to each other, asking each other for their names, asking what schools they each attended. 

But most of all, I heard laughter. In that instant I felt safe. 

The transition of going into a private school made me feel like I was in an entirely different universe, but I knew that I wasn’t the only one going through this change. On that small, yellow school bus, my SMART peers and I were already starting to bond and build a community.It’s been a total of 9 years. SMART class of 2015, we’ve been here for 9 years. That’s almost a decade! I don’t know about you guys, but that makes me feel hella old.  We grew up together, guys. We’ve known each other and have watched each other grow from ages 9 to 17 or 18. I’m sure Nonoko remembers the small, cute, baby-faced, energetic and shy 4th and 5th graders that we once were when we started the program. 

Nonoko says, "I do!" Cecilia & Izzy 2009
And I’m pretty sure Ben and Erin remember working with the awkward, prepubescent, obnoxious, talkative, but bright middle schoolers that we once were too. And now, Ana Maria, Karla, Laura and Cindy have gotten the honor of not only working with us CAP students, but nagging and harassing us over and over these past 4 years. Whether it was to get us to come to workshop, telling us  to get off our phones while we did homework, asking us to fill out scholarships, reminding us constantly to finish our college apps and personal statements, or telling us to take advantage of tutoring, these ladies, as well as the other staff members have pushed us to reach our full potential. 

And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since I began my time at The Urban School and at CAP. In addition to my classmates, my SMART experience would not have been fulfilling without the unconditional support, care, and encouragement I have received from every SMART staff member. If it was not for the staff members here and my love for the program, I would not have partaken in teaching last year’s CAP freshman about Identity and Social Justice, joined the Student Advisory Board, written and taught my own Identity lessons to SMART middle schoolers, been an office intern for Karla, helped out at SMART events and fundraisers, interviewed potential SMART candidates, volunteered or even agree to be the graduation speaker tonight.  

With the help of SMART staff, I became more proactive in seeking help with math and writing and became more involved in the Urban community. My time at CAP and Urban has been a significantly influential time in my life. I have transitioned from being a small, introverted, curious, energetic, clueless and occasionally shy kid to a still small but, well-rounded, confident, conscious, engaged and more extroverted young adult. It is because of all the SMART staff members that have worked with me throughout the years, that my passion for learning, helping others, teaching, and social justice  has heightened. 

As a senior in high school, I have not yet made a final decision for the college that I will be attending next fall. I am currently enrolled  at CSU Channel Islands with a declared sociology major, as I wait to hear back from Sarah Lawrence College, with the option of attending City College for two years and then transferring. My college decision process has not been so linear ever since my top choice school, Loyola University of Chicago, accepted me but failed to give me sufficient aid. While having had to turn down Loyola was the most frustrating moment in my college process, it is because of SMART that I will not view my current situation as a defeat, but as another chance to push myself to my full potential, take a risk, and make a sacrifice all the for sake of a great education and a brighter future. 

Regardless of the college I will attend next fall, I know I will take every opportunity that comes my way and I will make the best of whatever path I choose to take. And I will use the morals of hard work, motivation, and positivity that the SMART staff has instilled in me.  Thank you SMART class of 2015, thank you SMART staff members, thank you tutors, volunteers, and mentors, and thank you mom and dad for my 9 wonderful years at SMART.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Addie Honeycutt: Stewards in Our Communities

When you envision a leader that has made a difference in the world, who comes to mind? For many, this question conjures up the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr and Woodrow Wilson. However, two of our Scholars selected a leader much, much closer to home. 

While eighth graders at San Francisco Friends School, Angela and Giovanni profiled SMART's very own MAP Coordinator, Addie Honeycutt, for an article titled "Stewards in Our Communities." Below is the text of the article for your enjoyment.  We at SMART are very grateful to have Addie as an integral part of our team.  And we are equally proud of Angela and Giovanni for recognizing the ceaseless efforts of the SMART staff.

Article posted at San Francisco Friends School
Addie Honeycutt: Stewards in Our Communities
By Angela and Giovanni

Why should academically successful students be deprived of a good education based on their family’s income?  Addie Honeycutt works with SMART, a non-profit organization that helps students receive educational opportunities.  Addie started her love for teaching during her time working in underserved communities in San Francisco and Marin.  She then began working for Playworks, a non-profit organization and the only organization that helps bring community in low-income schools by organizing engaging gameplay during recesses.  During this time, she met with a few staff members who have kids that go to SMART.  From there, she began to become immersed with SMART’s action and goals. 

SMART helps motivated students achieve opportunities such as helping them get into private/charter middle schools, high schools, and even college.  SMART has an after school program for both middle schoolers and high schoolers who share the same background and goals.  Addie teacher middle school student about success in school, education, how to relieve stress and school work, and much more about the life of a student.  She helps families contact schools as some parents can only speak a certain language at home.  Because she speaks Spanish fluently, one of her jobs is to speak to Spanish-speaking families about their problems and needs.  Addie wants to help students reach their goals because there are many who really want to become successful but can’t due to financial problems, language barriers for families, and much more.  Because of SMART, students are able to reach their goals because of their persistence even from those problems.

So what can you do to help?  SMART runs purely off of donations and not from the government, meaning that there are limited spots for those students.  You can raise awareness in helping these young and motivated students by telling your family and friends.  Another option is to give back when you grow older.  As there is a requirement of age, you can tutor a student during the after school programs of mentor once you are an adult.  You can gain a new friendship with these students and help them in a direct way.  You can donate and find out more about SMART at http://thesmartprogram.org.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Heading Out to Nature with Outward Bound

Over Labor Day weekend, our 8th grade Scholars experienced one of the most beautiful landscapes in the state of California: Big Basin Redwoods State Park. There, some of the oldest known trees in the world exist, providing shade all day long and a gauntlet of trails with elevations upwards of 2,000 feet. SMART Scholars spent three days and two nights in the park along with two SMART staff members and four instructors from the Outward Bound Outdoor Education Program.  While there, students were pushed to their physical and emotional limits, helping one another overcome challenges and developing a new sense of camaraderie among the class of 2019.

While at Big Basin, students were split into two separate groups for the duration of the trip. The days started with stretching, preparing our bodies for the long days ahead, then breakfast (prepared by our student chefs), followed by long days of hiking and games. Individual and team building activities were intermittently peppered in, varying from journal entries to sharing challenging experiences in discussion groups. The days ended with half of the group setting up camp while the other half prepared dinner. Then, as is obligatory with these types of trips, once it got dark, scary stories were shared.

The trip was an experience that our Scholars will not forget! They challenged and supported one another, deepening the relationships and connections that have been forged over their past three years at SMART. With high school quickly approaching, the class of 2019 will have this trip to remember the great things they are capable of achieving and their ability to face and overcome any challenge.