Jimena Talamantes ‘20 and Kamaria Lyles ‘19 were first attracted to Summit Sierra, a Washington charter public high school, because of its strong commitment to preparing scholars for college and life. Today, they have chosen different career interests and schools on the opposite sides of the country. Yet, they share a passion for building a better and brighter tomorrow. They are confident that they can achieve their goals with the skills they built at Summit Sierra.
Jimena and Summit Sierra
Jimena, a freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in South Seattle. When she started considering her high school options, the commitment to college and access to academic support attracted her and her family to Sierra. “From the moment you get to Sierra, it’s clear that college is the goal,” she said. “They’ll tell you ‘this is your journey. This is where you are going,’ from the start.”
Growing up, Jimena’s family emphasized the importance of a great education to access opportunity. “I’m a first-gen student,” said Jimena. “My parents are immigrants who made sacrifices so I could access opportunity. I take those opportunities when I can because they are so valuable.”
So, Jimena took her opportunity with Sierra. In her mentor group, she found a support system that cheered her on in pursuit of her goals, and a mentor who regularly offered the motivation to keep moving forward in her academics. “The biggest component that helped me get to college was my mentor, Mr. Irvan,” said Jimena. “He always encouraged us to be the best version of ourselves. Then colleges would see all we had to offer.”
Not only did Jimena get good grades, she excelled in her AP classes and extended her learning into an internship with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Lab. When it came time for college applications, Jimena was ready. Sierra guided her and her classmates through the entire admissions process. They prompted scholars to start gathering all their application materials – CSS profiles, mid-year and final transcripts – offered guidance for FAFSA and WAFSA, and regular reminders to scholars about their next steps connecting with their desired schools. Jimena applied to ten colleges, was accepted into eight of them and wait-listed for the other two.
Getting into college was part one. Succeeding in college is the next step. While only in her first year, Jimena has found that the tools and skills that Sierra helped her develop have been invaluable to her early success. “They implemented key characteristics for me,” she said. “I learned to be comfortable asking questions and being OK not knowing everything. Now, I use my professor’s office hours to ask any questions I have, and in 200 person classes – on Zoom – now my professor knows me.”
Creating Change for the Future
Jimena is currently undeclared in her major, but she is very interested in pursuing human-centered design and engineering (HCDE). “I love technology, it’s amazing.” she said. “But technology can also hurt us. Research shows us that technology is a root cause of teenage anxiety, depression and suicide. I want to create change with HCDE to build tech that helps people, not hurt.”
Her passion for STEM-focused fields started in middle school and grew while at Sierra with the strong encouragement of teachers, staff and peers. The Sierra community supported her and cheered her on as she worked to learn in fields that have significant barriers to break down. “There is a lack of representation in the STEM sector. It’s very male dominated and white dominated,” Jimena said. “I know it’s going to be hard to break into this field, but I can do it.”
Jimena is focused on creating change not only in how people interact with technology, but in how her presence in the field opens a world of possibility for the next generation. “I am a woman of color and I want younger generations of girls who look like me to go ‘I want to do that too. I can do that too.’”
Kamaria and Summit Sierra
Kamaria is a Sophomore marketing major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. As a budding high schooler, she was inspired to enroll in Sierra because of the self-led learning model and small size. “I didn’t want to be at a large school,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere where everyone knew me, where I wasn’t just a number.” That focus on interpersonal relationships continues to help Kamaria as she connects with her professors and fellow students at Howard.
A visual learner by nature, Kamaria struggled with a one-size-fits-all educational approach from her middle school. At Sierra, she found that the self-led learning through multiple modes of information helped her master the curriculum and prepared her to find the resources she needs to continue her academic success in college.
“I do attribute my ability to find information to Sierra,” said Kamaria. “I can’t be reliant on my professors to give me everything. Sierra helped me be able to see all the options to access information and to ask good questions of my professors when I need to.”
More than self-direction, Summit Sierra’s focus on preparing scholars for college helped Kamaria carve a path for her future. “At Sierra, college is not seen as a possibility, it’s definite,” she said. “The attitude is that you are going to college. Sierra curated a community within the school around college as a goal.”
Summit Sierra dedicated set times every day for scholars to work together through their college application process. From writing and editing college entry essays to SAT prep, scholars collaborated on all aspects of college readiness.
“We were all rooting for each other to get into a four-year university,” said Kamaria. “Teachers and mentors were huge champions for us. They would point you to other staff around school who could talk about or connect you with alumni who could speak about schools you were interested in.”
Connections like these proved valuable to Kamaria. Through introductions and relationship building, she ended up speaking on a panel at a Washington STEM event, where she then met executives from major companies in the area. At another event, Summit Sierra’s Vice Principal introduced her to an alumna from Howard, where she could learn more about the school culture and the city. These experiences allowed her to assess her personal fit with various schools and communities.
“Sierra prepared us academically – we were all on track,” said Kamaria. “But they also helped us make sure we were ready on the cultural front. How will I feel so many miles away from home? How will I fit into the school? Will I be seen here? will people care about me here?”
To help address these questions, Sierra mentors also play a big role. They get to know scholars and build bonds that help them offer guidance tailored to each person. Kamaria is particularly grateful to her mentor for helping her find answers, and offering the social, emotional and structural support she needed while addressing unique financial aid challenges that caught her by surprise.
All Hands on Deck
After accepting her offer to Howard and submitting her final financial paperwork, Kamaria was surprised to find a possible hole in her expected family contribution. Her mentor helped her revise her financial aid application, work through emergency paperwork, and helped her start a gofundme to crowd source for the gap. Teachers and school leaders all boosted the gofundme while helping her wade through a very unique challenge that was not taught in their regular college prep sessions.
“Mentors helped talk me through these challenges,” said Kamaria. “While it all worked out, and I’m at Howard now, it’s the emotional support Sierra gave me when I was at a really low point that mattered the most.”
Creating Change for the Future
Now in her second year of college, Kamaria is diving into her major coursework. Her ultimate goal is to become a creative director or own her own webzine. She wants to build a career that allows her to use her full creative expression. Already in pursuit of this dream, she is the Marketing Director for the school’s Black Retail Action Group (BRAG).
As she learns more about business and marketing and watches her highly competitive cohort discuss “money over everything,” Kamaria is also keenly aware that she wants to make ethical choices in her career path.
“I want to exist in spaces and contribute without putting others down or holding them back to do it,” said Kamaria. “We can accomplish things without hurting others, even inadvertently, like using language that is not inclusive or modern.”
Kamaria is confident that she can affect change in addressing old ways of thinking, procedures and structures. “I’ve been on the planet for 19 years, and nothing in that time has remained stagnant or unchanging. Things are far more fluid,” she said. “I think that once we all start believing things are more fluid, we’ll be able to make more change. We need to encourage people to ask more questions and rethink change as the norm.”
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