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Gisela Ariza Goes to Washington PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 31 May 2012 04:42

Valley Native Gains National Public Policy Experience in the Nation's Capital

Gisela Ariza from Sylmar is one of the graduate fellows at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington DC.

At the end of her graduate work at USC, where she received a Masters in Education, School Counseling, Gisela Ariza wasn't sure what path to follow. She had interned as a school counselor and worked for a TRIO Program in South Los Angeles, but didn't know if she wanted to go back into the schools. That's when she received an "email from a friend of a friend" that made her move 3,000 miles away to Washington D.C., and reconsider her career prospects.

"The email just said I should apply to this fellowship," said Ariza, 25, whose family lives in Sylmar, and who had never been to nation's capital. The email told her about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's (CHCI), a nationally recognized and highly competitive Graduate Fellowship Program that provides all participants with roundtrip transportation to and from Washington, D.C., health insurance, and a gross monthly stipend of $2,700 to help cover housing and local expenses.

Ariza, a graduate of Birmingham High School, said she had never heard of CHCI or about the fellowship but, nonetheless, was intrigued about the program.

"I wasn't sure 100 percent that I was going to work in schools," she said, when she decided to apply.

CHCI, a Hispanic youth leadership development and educational organization, selected Ariza for its nine-month program that offers talented Latinos who recently earned their graduate degree an opportunity to gain hands-on experience at the national level working in Congress, federal agencies, national nonprofit organizations, and corporate America.

Ariza, born to Guatemalan parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, was selected from among hundreds of applicants from across the country to take part in the program, and is now becoming CHCI Secondary Education Graduate Fellow.

"CHCI is committed to keeping the promise to our nation's future leaders and providing unmatched public policy experience and access to the most powerful network of Latino leaders in America," said Esther Aguilera, CHCI president and CEO. "The fellowship program is directly helping young people achieve the American Dream."

Ariza began her fellowship August 2011, and was initially placed at the National Education Association, a teacher's union, before moving on to the Office of Rep. Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia.

"It's been really amazing," Ariza said of working in Congress and taking part in the program. "You learn to appreciate our country's political system. It's like being in history and government class, but living it." As part of the experience, she got to meet President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, as well as Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to reach that position.

"You get to attend meetings and conference and realize that not everything is like what we see on TV," said Ariza. "It's like there's no more mystery. You learn how things work behind the scenes."

As part of the program, Ariza and other fellows take part in weekly leadership training sessions that allow them to meet with national leaders and engage in substantive policy discussions. They are also required to work on a collaborative community service project that serves the local Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

In November and December 2011, in partnership with State Farm, the Fellows created and presented workshops on "Teen Driver Safety and Understanding Distracted Driving" for high school students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington D.C. They must also write a policy paper regarding their particular field.

She recently presented her white paper, "Analysis of Flexibility Waivers, Process and Impact on English Language Learners" at the CHCI Young Latino Leaders Summits, on April 16, on Capitol Hill.

The paper deals with whether the flexibility waivers issued by the Obama Administration to states to help them come up with ways to close the achievement gap were going to benefit or hurt Spanish-speaking students, something of particular interest in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"When I was doing my (practicum hours) program at USC, I dealt with a lot of Spanishspeaking students who were not proficient in English or had just arrived," said Ariza, adding the experience led to her paper.

She has enjoyed the experience of living and working in Washington D.C., so much so that Ariza has decided to remain there after finishing the fellowship.

Initially, she said her parents were not too keen on the idea of her being so far away.

"They're very proud and very excited for me. But they miss me a lot," said, noting that her father, Victor, mother Concha, and younger sister Manuela recently visited her new home.

"They finally got to see what I'm doing and where I live. They loved it. We went up to New York and New Jersey and they also went on a tour of the White House."

Ariza currently works as an Educational Counselor for the College Board, an organization that deals with the SATs and preparing students for college and helping them access the university system. In her new job, Ariza works with adults in the Washington D.C. area who didn't finish high school, or are trying to get back into college.

"With my participation in this program, I will have firsthand access to the policy-making arena, where I aim to ultimately improve inequities experienced in the secondary education system by minority students in the United States," she said.

"I assist the clients that come in with the FAFSA (college financial aid application) or high school drop outs, recent immigrants or those who want to go into vocational classes," she said. "It's really different from what I had done before, which was teaching K-12."

It's a job she likes, Ariza said, as she enjoys working with people and helping them achieve their educational goals. And it's a position where she can impart some of the experience she's gained having taking chances along the way.

"I always tell people 'just do what you want to do.' Sometimes people are not ready for college and they just need to live life a little. But if they want to go to college, you need to look for ways to make it happen. There's so many scholarships," said Ariza, who required her students to apply for two scholarships a month when she was teaching in a South Los Angeles public school.

Eventually, Ariza said she would like to work for the Department of Education and head back to the "hill" and work in Congress, as she had come to enjoy politics. "It's quite fun," she said.

In all, Ariza is thankful for having received that fortuitous email about the fellowship program.

"It's one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had," she said. "You get to learn a lot about health and education policy."

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 May 2012 18:33