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Vegas nonprofit helps teens become 1st-generation college students

Miriam Gomez knew she wanted to go to college, but she didn’t know how to get there.

That’s how she got to Leaders in Training, a grassroots nonprofit that helps students become the first in their families to go to college, as a high school sophomore in 2016.

Over the next three years, she and her cohort not only learned about how to apply for college, take entrance exams and get through the federal student aid application, but also about how to be successful in the community. She was required to do volunteer work and internships in potential career paths. Another key part of her after-school education was about the systems around education and equity.

“We really believe that our youth have all the talent in the world, but they don’t always have an equitable opportunity to pursue their talents,” said Erica Mosca, the program’s founder and executive director.

It was that philosophy that awakened Gomez to the challenges in getting to college for many students.

“In my head, I was just trying to do something better for my family,” Gomez, now a Nevada State College student, said. “Once I learned about that, I was like, ‘Oh, this is crazy.’ Because it was all things that affect me and where I live. That’s what kept me going to LIT because I would learn something new every week.”

Leaders in Training supports students after high school graduation, too. About 80 percent will continue to two- or four-year colleges, Mosca, said. In college, LIT supports its students through academic advisement, career development and more.

“Students could have straight A’s or they could have straight F’s because we believe every student can be a leader and given the opportunities and support, we believe every kid will be accepted to college and can persist if they choose to go,” Mosca said.

The program was so impactful for Gomez that she returned to be a part-time program manager while studying to become a child psychologist. Gomez ensures that sophomores are working on their internships and acts as a mentor to the teens.

“Seeing how I helped the students the way Ms. Mosca helped me is what really keeps me in LIT,” Gomez said. “If they were to get frustrated, I can talk to them. (I tell them) I get it. It’s frustrating, and sometimes you don’t want to do stuff. But in the end it all makes sense and pays off, why you’re doing this.”

This story was produced in partnership with the United Way of Southern Nevada as part of the “Everyone Deserves Hope” effort to assist local families this holiday season. To contribute, visit uwsn.org/hope.

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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