When Mario Sanchez attended high school in the Eastern Washington community of Sunnyside, he didn’t have many people in his life he could talk to about pursuing college. That guidance came when he attended Esperanza En Educación, a one-day conference for Latino high school seniors on the University of Washington campus.
“I thought it was really helpful,” Sanchez said. “I was able to communicate with a lot of mentors because I didn’t really have that in Sunnyside. Since I’m first-generation, I didn’t have the possibility of getting much help.”
ASK AN AMBASSADOR
What is your most important piece of advice for a prospective college student?
Bailey Warrior: Never let anyone tell you no.
Asalemo Crawford: Never think that college is impossible.
Kamaria Carnes: It’s never too early to apply for scholarships.
Mario Sanchez: Study habits and time management are key.
Those UW students were members of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity’s (OMA&D) Ambassador Program. Ambassadors assist the OMA&D Recruitment and Outreach staff in its efforts to develop and execute outreach programs for underrepresented minority (URM) middle and high school students throughout the state.
The program includes a group of 38 undergraduates from a variety of backgrounds and majors. They are selected through a competitive application process and spend the year working with conferences, community outreach activities, college fairs and campus visits.
The 2013-14 ambassadors were introduced on Sept. 27, at a special reception attended by UW Regent Joanne Harrell, Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and UW Vice President for Minority Affairs and Vice Provost for Diversity Sheila Edwards Lange.
“Ambassadors are on the frontlines of the work that we do, making connections with students and families, and building personal relationships which are so important to the populations we serve,” said Recruitment and Outreach Assistant Director Merissa Tatum. “They are also well-versed and trained in the UW admissions process, and help prospective students become more ‘college ready.’”
The Ambassador Program was established in 1999 by a student-led initiative that came in response to the passage of Washington State Initiative 200 which prohibited the use of racial and gender preferences by government entities, including the UW.
“The underrepresented minority community took that as a message that they weren’t welcome,” said Stephanie Miller, OMA&D assistant vice president for Outreach, Recruitment and Pre-College Programs. “UW students wanted to do something about it.”
According to Miller, one of their ideas was to start a program that allowed students to go out and talk to other students and community organizations about the opportunities available at the UW. The very first ambassador was Jerald Harris, Native American student from White Swan, Wash. From there, the program grew and became a model for other programs on campus.
Originally, ambassadors focused solely on working in the field and in the schools. They have since become more campus-based, inviting students to visit the UW. However, Miller said plans are to return to a model that is both campus and community-based.
Sanchez, now a senior social work major, was greatly affected by his interactions with ambassadors when he was a prospective student. After enrolling at the UW, he realized he wanted to help in the same way. He became an ambassador and is in his third year with the program.
Sanchez isn’t alone. Many ambassadors are inspired to join the program after reaping the benefits themselves. The unique peer-to-peer connection they experience during what is a stressful time for many pre-college students has a far-reaching impact.
“We connect with a lot of students on an individual basis,” said Kamaria Carnes, a senior psychology major and second-year ambassador. “And I think a lot of students see themselves in us and we see ourselves in them.”
“Being able to relate to someone that looks like you and shares a similar background makes a world of difference,” Tatum added. “These students look up to the ambassadors as role models and a mentorship is established.”
The connections that form between ambassadors and pre-college students during outreach activities also help to convey the sense of community and support that is available at the UW.
“I think that this program is so important because at UW it is so easy to feel lost,” said Bailey Warrior, a junior psychology major and second-year ambassador. “When there are 40,000 students that is just the reality of it. I feel like the only way to find your place here is to break down the community and that is exactly what our office does.”
Not only do ambassadors help the UW feel smaller, they help communicate the message that no matter what these students may have heard, college can be a reality for them.
“A lot of times our own communities see the University and higher education as inaccessible just because they see that it’s for a select group,” said Asalemo Crawford, a senior anthropology major and second-year ambassador. “They’d rather stay within their own communities and go with what they know, and a lot of times that doesn’t include higher education. What our program does is make sure to show that it is possible and accessible. Given the right opportunities and the right resources they can succeed.”
Ambassadors put a lot of effort into OMA&D’s outreach efforts, but the job also provides them with exceptional opportunities for professional development and academic enrichment.
“They acquire leadership skills, speaking skills, and program organization and management skills,” Miller said. “Ambassadors learn how to give back to the communities that they serve and it often motivates them to excel because we do have certain academic standards that we expect from them.”
The work influences career aspirations for many, including Carnes who plans to become a college recruiter or work in admissions.
“The Ambassador Program has completely turned around what I want to do after I graduate,” she said. “Besides studying abroad and the great classes, it’s been the heart of my experience here at the UW.”
Ambassadors also emphasize that once they join the program, they join a family as well. They form a support network, encourage each other academically and connect even deeper with the communities that they serve.
Another added benefit is the knowledge that their work is making a difference.
“It is a job, but this is a job that gives you more than just money,” Sanchez said. “It gives you the reward that you make a positive impact on somebody’s life and in the community.”