Gisela Ariza ME ’11 always wanted to make a difference in the education of underserved students. She just didn’t know the level her aspiration would reach – all the way to Washington, D.C.
Born in Los Angeles to Guatemalan immigrants, Ariza attended public schools with few resources and teachers who seemed “burned out.” When she was recommended to attend an honors English course in the seventh grade, a world of possibilities opened up to her.
“My new classroom had textbooks, shelves of novels, computers and colorful projects on the wall,” she remembered. “It was the first time I felt I was learning, and it is one of the reasons I am where I am today.”
Ariza also faced discrimination as one of only two students of color in her new class. While her parents couldn’t fully relate to their daughter’s struggle against racism in an American school, they always debated the topic of global politics, particularly the inequities faced by many people.
In a bid to change alcohol and tobacco policies in California’s African-American and Latino communities, Ariza began to spend time outside of school working with a nonprofit and gained a greater appreciation of social issues as an undergraduate sociology major.
“I realized that many of my high school classmates had dropped out starting in 10th grade, and I knew they weren’t stupid – they just felt disconnected from the material and their teachers. So I decided that education was one of the systems I could make a change in,” Ariza said. “I applied to USC Rossier, which has a program that recognizes that the school system is not tailored to students of color.”
In the Master of Education in School Counseling program, she found a mentor in professor Alan Green.
“Academically, he helps me understand what my options are and never hesitates to connect me with the right people,” she said.
“During her time here at USC Rossier, she blossomed as a young inquisitive adult, leading her to more questions about self, schools, and her ethnic and cultural background and related policy,” Green said. “Since being in D.C., she has grown 10 times more in terms of her knowledge base, skills and inquiry.”
The USC Rossier program taught Ariza how to be creative in her approach toward education and the way she communicated with students. But an internship at a Los Angeles Unified School District charter school showed that the disconnection between students, teachers and learning still existed.
“I felt I was making a difference but only in one life at a time,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t have the power to make changes in laws and policies, and I had very little understanding about our government system and how decisions are actually made.”
After graduation, Green suggested that Ariza apply for a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., to gain a deeper understanding of education policy behind the scenes and expand her experiences beyond the familiarities of Southern California.
Ariza received the fully funded fellowship as a secondary education fellow sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“This program helped me to understand the complexities of the system. It’s complicated, and it’s a power struggle. And it’s been frustrating,” she said. “A lot of the decision-makers aren’t educators and haven’t been in the classroom, and that’s been eye-opening for me.”
Ariza has worked on several projects related to education for Hispanics, including a national public school framework to be followed by educators and policymakers regarding English-language learners. She also provides weekly reports on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
She currently is working in the office of Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and champion of the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
Ariza also is exploring international fellowships that would broaden her understanding of education policy and her impact on the lives of students.
“I believe that education sets the foundation for the quality of life one will have, but it can take years to pass a law that can benefit populations who are the most vulnerable,” she said. “After uncovering the mysteries of Congress, I realized that even if I miss seeing my students one on one, this might be the only way to impact more lives.”