by Theo Lebryk

With FCPS pushing its “portrait of a graduate,” The Raiders’ Digest interviewed alumni on how Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) has worked under a similar model to develop life skills for its students.

“Without AVID I would’ve been lost.”

For Stuart alumna Claudia Valenzuela (’11), when it came to deciding her post-secondary future, this statement is true without exaggeration. As the first person in her family to attend college, Valenzuela had little help in the application process.

“Direct deposit, Common App –I didn’t hear about any of that stuff until AVID,” said Valenzuela. “I probably wouldn’t have set foot on a campus if it weren’t for AVID [field trips].”

Valenzuela’s story is shared by many recent Stuart graduates such as Stuart alumna Cindy Barrera (’11). Barrera credits AVID for helping prepare for college as well as to come out of her shell.

“I was really shy and lacked the confidence to take advanced courses,” said Barrera. “If it wasn’t for AVID I wouldn’t have taken advanced courses.”

Senior AVID student Sara Semmami agrees, saying AVID helped her learn the importance of “taking risks, going for different opportunities you wouldn’t have expected.”

For Stuart Alumnus Marques Owens (‘11), one of these opportunities was a White House Mentorship Program that AVID Coordinator Eric Welch introduced to him as a junior. Owens has since met President Barack Obama, Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Harvey among others.

“But even more than that we were involved in a lot of community service projects and events that help shape us for college and the real world,” said Owens. Through the Mentorship Program, Owens was introduced to the National Black Justice Coalition, “a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people” according to its website.

“This platform helps me a great deal as in my future goals, I want to open and run my own LGBT Youth Center and also have a HIV/AIDS testing site and treatment complete with counseling as well,” said Owens.

“Perhaps more important, though, are the skills that the AVID program instilled in its graduates that stuck with them after graduation. Though more nuanced than the broad portrait of a graduate, all six of the alumni interviewed attested to applying skills they learned while in the program whether it be at work or in post-secondary school.”

“It provides them with valuable skills they wouldn’t get in other classes,” said AVID and math teacher MK Jennings. According to Jennings, the program teaches students how to survive in the real world more than solving a math problem or reading a book and provides them with a “support system and ideas that they might not get anywhere else.”

“I learned not to be scared [of failure] and how to pick yourself up after you fail,” said Barrera. “It’s not like they created skill but enhanced skills I didn’t know I had.”

“Skills such as, note-taking, speaking in group settings, problem solving and time management are very important and are important to master prior to high school graduation,” said Stuart alumnus Naoufal Bouamar (‘09) via email. “I have found that all those skills are relevant and very important in college, work, law school – at this point in my career I’ve deemed the skills taught in AVID essential.” Bouamar attends the New England School of Law in Boston and works as an intern in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

“I was definitely ahead of the game compared to my classmates,” noticed Stuart alumna Edith Partida (‘10) of her freshman year at Bridgewater College. Partida currently is pursuing a career as a physical therapist or personal trainer.

Said Stuart alumnus John Kwarteng (’09), “AVID motivates you to get into college and to be successful there too,” Now a technical recruiter at the staffing firm Aerotek, Kwarteng said AVID helped with “being organized, having a plan in place, being professional, being punctual, being able to speak in front of people,” all skills he uses in his current job..

Valenzuela is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and has hopes to take a gap year to work in Costa Rica or Ecuador as part of Projects Abroad, a program that sends interns to foreign countries. After that, she plans on attending medical school. Her pre-med undergraduate education at VCU may never have transpired had it not been for Welch. During the Spring of 2011, Valenzuela’s plans to attend college out of state fell through. With most applications already in, Valenzuela felt resigned to going to community college. Then, Welch stepped in.

“Mr. Welch helped me through and found out the grace period of VCU, which I would’ve had no idea to do by myself.

“If it wasn’t for AVID, I would’ve ended up at Community College, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I got to go where I wanted to be,” said Valenzuela.

Photo by Theo Lebryk