Title: College & Career Readiness Coordinator

Time with KidWorks: 11 months

Favorite part about working at KidWorks: “Being a cheerleader for our seniors and encouraging them to continue their education after high school.”

Favorite KidWorks’ memory: “Leading last year’s in-person Campus Crash event, where our students experience college and university campuses firsthand.”

As KidWorks celebrates our 30th anniversary, hundreds of students who’ve attended our programs over three decades are now adults with meaningful and rewarding careers.

Clarisa Vargas—our January 2023 “Meet the Teacher” honoree—has already planted dozens of “college and career success” seeds for our next 30 years in the short 11 months since she joined our team.

Our College & Career Readiness Coordinator is the perfect inspiration for our 11th and 12th grade high school students, many of whom might otherwise never see a college or a university in their futures.

That’s because Clarisa faced many of the same economic hurdles our students encounter. Yet she prevailed remarkably.

Despite growing up in underserved communities in Orange County, Clarisa earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology with a minor in nonprofit management from Pepperdine University in 2017 and a Master of Arts degree in international economics and Latin American studies from Johns Hopkins University in 2021.

“Coming from a low-income Hispanic home, my parents pushed me to get an education and see the value it offers,” Clarisa says. “My hope is that I can inspire our students that no matter where you come from, the future can be bright.

“It breaks my heart to see some young people so defeated that they believe college is not possible for them. I am here to be that positive role model that shows them it’s achievable.”

She adds, “The biggest obstacles my family faced were low income and being unsure how to afford my college education. I knew I wanted to go to a private Christian school for my undergraduate studies because I wanted smaller classes and more attention from my professors. But the price tag scared us.”

She says her parents, Maria and Seferino, constantly worried how they could afford to pay for higher education, but they inspired her through their own work ethic (holding multiple jobs), encouraging her to apply for scholarships and letting her know that her exceptional grade point average would be a plus.

Clarisa uses the same tenacity that propelled her to success in higher education to give our students the confidence that they can do it, too.

At KidWorks, Clarisa’s many responsibilities are all focused on that goal. She has responsibilities that include:

College Apps Academy is a 25-week program for high school seniors that provides guidance through the college application process, including support with college and financial aid applications, scholarships, admissions essays and tips on how to have a successful transition into college.

Campus Crash provides middle and high school students enrolled in our programs a firsthand taste of college and university life, with the goal that they pursue higher education. 

Career Day is held in the spring, during which students in sixth through 12th grades meet with members of the community in break out sessions to learn about different career fields and choices.

Mentor Program is a two-year engagement where KidWorks pairs our high school seniors with young professionals, so they can ask questions about college, majors, career interests, the work world and more.

Senior Experience is a monthly event for high school seniors that focuses on such areas as social engagement with peers, self-care and visits by representatives from local community colleges.

A perfect example of the positive impact Clarisa is having on our students is high school senior, Karla.

Clarisa first met Karla as a high school junior. At the time, Karla didn’t see college in her future and in fact had no interest in pursuing education beyond high school.

But Clarisa wanted more for Karla and set to work changing her mindset.

“I was able to convince Karla to come to our Wednesday College Apps meetings,” Clarisa recalls. “As fall rolled around, she started coming more, and I met with her individually to learn the schools she wanted to apply to.”

Clarisa says that Karla applied to eight colleges. She remembers the moment Karla shared some great news:

“Karla came up to me and said she was accepted by Vanguard University and received a scholarship! We started screaming, and I gave her a hug and she started crying because she never thought this could be possible for her.”

Adds Clarisa, “I started to tear up because after all her hard work over the past year, she had come so far. Students like Karla are why I love my job and do what I do.”

Brenda Trujillo Sanchez, our College & Career Manager, says Clarisa’s own higher education journey inspires our students in only a way someone who has walked a similar path could do.

“Clarisa shares her own college experience with the students and allows herself to be vulnerable with them,” Brenda says. “She encourages our students to dream big and believe in themselves. She gives each student individualized time and really gets to know them.”

“As a result, the students trust her, they see her as an advisor and a friend. In the classroom, Clarisa finds ways to make lessons engaging, especially with the younger students.”

Clarisa brought a strong background working in education prior to joining KidWorks.

“During my undergrad at Pepperdine University, I worked for Jumpstart for three years, which was an AmeriCorps’ education nonprofit. We went into low-income preschools in Los Angeles and provided individualized lessons for preschoolers, so they would enter kindergarten ready to succeed and on the same page as their peers,” she says.

Clarisa adds, “I then took a job with City Year, another education-based nonprofit, in Boston, and I was placed in an underserved middle school and served as a tutor and mentor to seventh and eighth graders who were immigrants.”

In her spare time, Clarisa enjoys expanding her horizons.

“I love traveling and have visited 20 countries and 32 U.S. states,” she says. “I’ve taken my education to all of these places through study abroad programs and my love for learning new things about our beautiful, diverse world.”

“The favorite country I’ve traveled to so far is Argentina. I lived with a host family and experienced life as an Argentinian, which made it so much more immersive. I also love national parks and have visited over 20; my favorites are Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and Glacier National Park in Montana.”

 The KidWorks’ team is filled with joy, knowing that Clarisa’s strong belief in the lives of children and youth will yield a continued harvest of college/university success and meaningful careers that contribute greatly to our community and society as a whole.

By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer

Would you like to personally say “thanks” to Clarisa for the way she is developing our youngest scholars, please email her at: clarisa.vargas@kidworksoc.org

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in our monthly feature called “Meet the Teacher,” where readers have a chance to know each of our dedicated educators a little better.)