Why Mentoring Matters: A Story of a First-Generation Graduate

If you’re a student new to mentoring, you might worry about what’s expected of you or how to behave in this new relationship. Take it from a Summit Public Schools (SPS) alum, Valeria Torres, who once asked those same questions: “You need to trust the other person, you need to take the time to know your mentor as a person.”

As the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college, and now an employee of Summit Public Schools, Valeria can look back and reflect on her journey as one driven by her own motivation and desire to find an authentic path. But it has also been a journey supported, in part, by her SPS mentor, who provided the guidance and life skills that she still uses to grow and thrive in her career, relationships, and life.

Growing Up: A First-Generation High-School Graduate

Valeria spent her elementary years just a few blocks from what is now Summit Preparatory Charter High School, the flagship school of 11 Summit Public Schools in California and Washington. A first-generation American, she grew up in a single-parent household with her mother and two older sisters. Both of Valeria’s parents are immigrants from Mexico.

As an eight-year-old, Valeria watched both of her sisters attend, fall behind, and then drop out of the local public high school. “I knew I wanted something different,” she said about her own academic path. When it came time for Valeria to attend high school, she had two options. One was to enroll in a local private Catholic high school, which came at a high cost. The other was to attend Summit Prep, which by 2009 was six years into its journey and still refining the personalized approach that is now Summit Learning.

Valeria applied and was given an offer to enroll in Summit Public Schools. The summer before her freshman year, she received her acceptance letter from SPS for the fall of 2009. Valeria would attend Summit Everest in Redwood City, which opened that same fall.

“We had students, teachers, administration, staff — but no building,” recalled Valeria. Students and staff spent the next three months using classrooms at Stanford University, then moved to an office building for the rest of that school year and an additional year. But resilience runs strong in Summit students, families, and staff. By the time Summit Everest’s new doors in Redwood City opened in the fall of 2011, students and staff had created a tight-knit community built on trust and understanding.

Mentoring: A Relationship Built on Trust

Valeria’s mentor, Greg Ponikvar, was with her from day one. “He was young, about my age now, and he didn’t know what he was doing — neither did I! But he offered his support at all times.” Starting her freshman year, Valeria remembers Greg teaching her how to set SMART goals in her academic and personal life.

At different points of the year, Greg invited Valeria’s mother to join their mentor meetings, during which they’d review those goals and discuss Valeria’s progress. Valeria’s mother, who did not attend college and whose first language is Spanish, could not directly support Valeria through the college process. However, she grew to trust Greg over the years. “If Mr. Ponikvar suggested a next step of action, my mother would make me take that next step of action,” said Valeria.

Valeria Torres stands with her mentor, Greg Ponikvar, at high school graduation

In 2013, Valeria attended University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) as part of Everest’s first graduating class. UCSB was also, coincidentally, Greg’s alma mater. Not only was Valeria the first person in her family to attend college, but it was the furthest she had lived away from her family for an extended period of time. “It was venturing into the unknown for the first time, even though I knew I had a support net who I could reach out to at any moment of the day,” she said.

Greg had also been open with Valeria and her peers about the “culture clash” that many students encounter when entering college. She recalled him emphasizing the importance of going to class and attending office hours to get to know the professors and create relationships. Valeria credits the skills and habits of success that she learned through her mentoring sessions with helping her acclimate and succeed — both in college and in life after graduation.

Stepping Up: A Personal Path After College Graduation

In the summer of 2016, Valeria earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology, graduating after only three years. Immediately after graduation and still hungry for knowledge, she studied abroad for a summer at Frei University in Berlin, taking courses in European business management and history. While in Germany, Valeria received and accepted an offer from UCSB’s sociology department to serve as a research assistant.

Valeria Torres hugs her mother after her college graduation ceremony

When she returned to Santa Barbara, Valeria participated in two UCSB-based research projects focused on politics and communications. The first involved work with the San Francisco police department examining body cam footage for behavioral biases. Valeria’s second research venture involved examining communications messaging around Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

After a year of research, Valeria returned home to Redwood City. Her initial plan was to stay the summer while she figured out her next career and life steps. When searching for jobs, Valeria stumbled upon an operations manager posting at Summit Denali in Sunnyvale, California. She decided to apply and got the job, working under her supervisor (and former Chemistry Teacher) Executive Director Kevin Bock.

Fourteen months later, she transferred to her current position as executive assistant to the superintendent and special projects manager at Summit Public Schools. Valeria and Greg are now part of the same organization and mission — to prepare a diverse student population for success in a four-year college or university, and to be thoughtful, contributing members of society. Greg currently serves as executive director at Summit Olympus in Tacoma, Washington. Nearly 10 years after their mentorship relation began and now becoming colleagues, he is still a source of support.

Valeria talks about her chosen life path and how the structures set in place during high school still impact her life and work today. She still has 1:1 meetings with Superintendent Anson Jackson (her new boss) and is confident setting personal and professional goals. One of Valeria’s current goals is looking into how she can give back to her community and mentor high school students. And her passion to learn and help all young people receive a personalized and meaningful education remains unerring.

January is National Mentoring Month. Learn more about mentoring at Read the Spanish version of this story.

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.