Being the first in your family to go to college is hard. Erica Mosca knows.
Growing up in California, Mosca was far from wealthy. She participated in a college prep program and won a scholarship to Boston University (BU), where she excelled. The trials she faced, however, left her with the desire to ease the way for other first-generation college students.
After graduating from BU in 2008, Mosca spent two years with Teach for America in elementary school classrooms in northeast Las Vegas, a region with one of the worst graduation rates in the nation. She started thinking and talking about ways to lift those numbers and train students for college — and to be leaders in an America growing more diverse each year.
“I realized very quickly that I could talk about college [with students] all day long, but I wasn’t able to make systemic change,” said Mosca. After Teach for America, she earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and then returned to Nevada to work in education policy. There, she found that, although she could design pathways to success, she couldn’t help kids see the value in them.
So Mosca contacted her former Teach for America students, now in eighth grade.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this leaders-in-training idea, we’re going to make it a real thing. Show up at the neighborhood park on this day.’ And there were 30 kids and families there.”
Jamie: Hi everyone my name is Jamie, and I'm in cohort four in Leaders in Training, and I am currently going to a charter school called Equipo Academy which is college prep, along with LIT.
So I recently got the news that I got accepted to UCLA, which has a 17 percent acceptance rate. I'm super proud of myself, like I never knew I could make it that far and that my accomplishment get into such a competitive school like UCLA.
I feel that because of that it gives me a higher chance to be able to give back to my community and, you know people know UCLA's name, that it's a good school and so it's more likely that I can give back to the community and inspire others that education — just because they're a first generation student or just because they're a Latino student — doesn't mean that it can limit them any further than anybody else and so if I can do it, a first-generation student myself and Latino — a Latina — then anyone can do it and just keep reaching out there and making sure that you're doing the best ... you're doing the most you can do to get into the College of your dreams.
Thus was born her nonprofit, Leaders in Training (LIT), initially funded with her own savings in 2012. The program, based in northeast Las Vegas, has both an academic and social component.
High school freshmen begin by learning life skills such as the importance of keeping appointments and how to formally greet others in a professional setting. Students also participate in the first of three planned internships by tutoring elementary school kids in nearby schools. By the time they begin their sophomore years, they’re asked to start focusing on their potential college majors.
“[One of our students] said he wanted to be an engineer, so we got Nevada Energy — the biggest source of energy in the state — to take an intern,” said Mosca. About the whole group, she added, “Now they have a career internship, and they’re learning how to be on time, be resilient, connect with others, network.”
Junior year focuses on ACT preparation and starting the Common Application. “We do college visits throughout the four years,” said Mosca. “Senior year all we do is apply to colleges.”
But the program doesn’t end with graduation. The students form a support network for each other through college.
“Every cohort of students is on a group text [and] on a call every month,” explained Mosca. These regular check-ins with peers let the students take responsibility for their own education while having a safe place to ask questions and seek advice.
After seven years, LIT’s first class is graduating from college.
“We have one student who was in our first cohort. She’s graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, a semester early and is joining an advocacy group called the Asian Community Development Council of Southern Nevada. She’s opening the Reno office as a 20-year-old, and has already hosted multiple citizenship fairs,” Mosca said. “Because she’s a leader.”