Spark Alumni Spotlight with Jasmin Orellana

Jasmin Orellana joined Spark’s program in 2013 as an 8th grade student who attended KIPP DC Will Academy in Washington, DC. Her teachers and advisor recognized that she needed extra support and guidance to attain a post-secondary education, as she was an only child from a low-income family.

Jasmin’s parents were immigrants from El Salvador who were not aware of the college process. Her advisor recommended she apply for Capital Partners for Education, now named Spark the Journey. She had a support system from Spark for four years in high school, completed three and half years at Shepherd University, and graduated from the Trio Program. She is currently a Post-Secondary Education Fellow at KIPP Forward.

What’s one memorable moment you have of you and your mentor?

I can’t write all my memorable moments with Caroline in one paragraph. I have been paired with Caroline for ten years and have gone through a lifetime of experiences with her. We met in 2013 and we were given name tags during our retreat (mine was Tweety Bird). Funny enough, my best friend, Bria, was looking for her mentor and found mine through Sylvester’s nametag while I was also looking for mine and found hers! We exchanged mentors and had a blast while rock climbing and doing trust activities outside. In 2014, she attended my mother’s baby shower, and in 2016, she attended my quinceañera. I attended her wedding and her baby shower in 2019. Throughout the years, we had frequent encounters going out to grab lunch or coffee, watch movies, or attend board meetings and events together at Spark.

How did your mentor help you with the college application process?

I had a fantastic support team. Caroline supported me throughout high school during every step in the college application process. She prepared me by introducing the SAT/ACT prep during my sophomore year and provided support with my AP and honor courses. She encouraged me to apply to multiple universities, and when my passion changed from law to marine biology, she supported me with the transition. She edited my papers and supported me with my personal statements for college and my senior capstone. Caroline drove me and picked me up from my orientation when I decided to attend Shepherd University.

What college did you go to and what career path did you choose?

I attended Shepherd University in 2017 and majored in Environmental Science with a concentration in Aquatic Science. Throughout my two years in college, I was focused on becoming a marine biologist because I wanted to support fellow researchers by discovering the ocean and learning more about extinct and endangered species. I was deeply invested in observing trends in sea levels and the effects of climate change on our environment. However, that changed after being a mentor in the Trio Program. After I graduated, I realized the shortage of jobs due to COVID. I received a Fellowship in 2021 as a College and Career Fellow at KIPP DC. My position has shifted to Post-secondary Education Fellow, supporting alums with their next steps after high school whether it be a career, enlisting in the military, applying to a certification program, or attending college.

How did COVID effect your last year of college?

During my junior year, COVID cases started surging but hadn’t reached the United States. Nonetheless, cases increased during winter break and my university was spiraling out of control trying to transition all students to move off campus to attend classes virtually. This affected my presentation for my senior capstone and the timeline of the topics in my classes. We were completely virtual during spring 2020, and many of our class objectives weren’t aligned with the instructional strategies. I returned to campus fall of 2020 for my last semester and struggled to transition back in because we were asynchronous online learning for the spring and then hybrid for the fall semester.

How did Spark the Journey and your mentor help get you through that challenging time?

Spark the Journey and my mentor supported me mentally and financially through the challenging times. As an upperclassman, touchpoints with my advisor from Spark the Journey weren’t as frequent. I would correspond through email and complete the monthly requirements to get incentives. I did receive extra support with the book awards and the emergency funds, which supported me with personal expenses on campus. My mentor was aware of the state of my mental health and reached out periodically to check in. I kept her updated on my classes and social anxiety as it got worse throughout COVID.

Has the pandemic made it hard to secure employment as a recent graduate?

Securing employment as a recent graduate throughout the pandemic was the most challenging part because many job positions required work experience. In environmental science, many positions were in environmental policy. I wanted to be a researcher and to travel to other parts of the country to pursue my passion as a marine biologist. Moving out of DC was a tough decision due to COVID and finding secure employment.

I had previously worked for multiple non-profit organizations, but they were also facing difficulties with community outreach in the DC-area due to COVID cases increasing. So, I worked at Chipotle for a short time and got employment as a medical assistant to get more work experience in other careers. When the opportunity as a college and career fellow was offered, I didn’t expect to get the whole counselor experience until I was provided with my first caseload.

Becoming an advisor and supporting them with their post-secondary education or advocating for students with learning disabilities has come with all the experiences I had with multiple support throughout high school and college. After KIPP, I want to continue supporting students, not only in their post-secondary education but also with their mental health. I want to become a licensed social worker and work for the Department of Education to improve the resources and programs offered to students after they graduate from a DC public school.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I enjoy spending time with family in my free time, although my family dynamic has changed significantly over the last ten years. My mother and father separated and got remarried and have separate families, so I take advantage of any chance I get to spend time with my sister. I am also engaged and have two very hyperactive dogs. We go to different places and we are always doing activities with them. I also started traveling and attending mental health webinars to understand different approaches to supporting students from low-income families and minority communities that have endured various traumatic events and mental health concerns. I have been studying for the LSAT and GRE to enter a dual degree for MSW/JD.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I have ever received is not to overwork yourself and to listen to your body. While in college, I took about 18 to 21 credits each semester and worked 2 work-study jobs, one in dining services and the other in animal care. I assumed that working leads to great success, but it doesn’t. I was physically and mentally drained and tried to cover it by overworking myself to the point where I couldn’t advocate for myself, which started to affect my mental health. Let yourself take breaks and have time in between your schedule to prioritize your self-care. We don’t have to be robots always, and it’s okay to have fun from time to time.