The Alray Scholars Program awards scholarships to Boston Public School graduates who started college, left for various reasons, and wish to return to higher education. Scholarship recipients are paired with a mentor who provides guidance and support through their journey of earning their degree.
Denaisha and Sandra
When listening to a podcast in 2015, Sandra Torres became aware of the many obstacles --not only financial --that first generation scholarship students face in order to complete their programs. As Immigration Counsel for the University of Massachusetts, Sandra works in support of the UMass mission to provide high quality, affordable and accessible education to the people of the Commonwealth. She decided to become a mentor at Alray Scholars because she saw mentoring as an opportunity to work with a UMass student in a personal capacity by fostering a relationship and sharing her personal experiences as a minority, first-generation, woman with multiple degrees and a rich professional history. Many scholars have jobs and significant family commitments on top of their academic responsibilities that Sandra recognizes can be a challenge as well as an accomplishment.
Denaisha Lesley-Coburn is a final semester senior at UMass Boston studying Business. She was matched with Sandra halfway through her college career. At the time, Denaisha had transferred schools a few times and was faced with some financial aid challenges. “There were a lot of resources I wasn’t too familiar with,” Denaisha said. “Sandra really wasn’t too familiar with the process either. However, I was able to reach out to resources on campus and be guided through her support.”
Sandra sees her mentoring role not as an authoritative figure in Denaisha’s life, but as a partner who recognizes Denaisha’s personal strengths. “My role is to listen to her, to be with her, to help her find resources where she needs to look for resources, to help her understand that she doesn’t carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. It is okay to ask for help and ask a lot of people a lot of questions about everything,” Sandra said.
“I’ve been paired with a very independent, very self-sufficient, very driven young woman,” Sandra said about Denaisha. “So in that sense, she doesn’t need a lot. She has all of that inside her. Sometimes what she needs is to broaden her horizons a little bit and other times what she needs is to focus, because she’s taken too much on. So it’s kind of like helping her negotiate that balance that we’re all trying to find in life.”
Denaisha has felt guided and supported by Sandra while navigating not only school, but other aspects of her life as well. “As far as her playing a part within my self-determination and my drivenness, I just think that she motivates me in a direction that I can see myself go,” Denaisha said. “Her words of affirmation and encouragement definitely help me move beyond what I can see for myself. I think that’s very important because sometimes we know what we are capable of doing, but when we have other people to shine a light on those facts or things that you are able to do, it pushes you even more.”
Trust, Support, and Mutual Respect
“I think that so much of the power of this dynamic has to do with building a relationship of trust and support,” Sandra said. By establishing a personal connection with Denaisha, Sandra has not only helped Denaisha feel comfortable with her, but also welcomed into her own life. “She has to want to talk to me. She has to want to feel comfortable expressing her concerns or asking me for help. How can that happen if I keep her at arm’s length? If I keep her out of my world, how could I expect her to let me into hers.”
Denaisha shared that going out for dinner together, meeting Sandra’s family, and having brunch at Sandra’s house has helped broaden the boundaries of their relationship. She described Sandra as personable, relatable, and approachable as a mentor. “I find that she is gracefully candid and I admire her hard work as a wife, mother and mentor,” Denaisha said, adding that she has learned how to handle responsibilities and plan her career goals from Sandra sharing her experiences. “She has a distinct character as a mentor that I could potentially see myself holding.”
Denaisha uses the motivation and encouragement she receives from Sandra and the Alray program to hold a high standard on her academics, interactions, and her personal goals. She plans to use her knowledge of business and leaderships skills to work with different businesses and nonprofits.“I know that it’s going to take me some time because I want to become a business consultant, but I am trying to navigate ways of becoming more knowledgeable to help people,” Denaisha said.
Seeing how Denaisha has grown and learned through her academic experience, Sandra feels proud of Denaisha’s hard work and accomplishments. “That’s such a beautiful thing,” Sandra said, admiring Denaisha’s desire to give back to her community after graduation. “That’s a lot of what the Alray program does. It helps all of us give back. The mentors give their time,give their ears, give their love to all these promising young people that really just want to give back to their communities at the end of the day. We’re all here to do good.”
To learn more about Alray Scholars, visit their website at alray.org.