When Viridiana Vargas was in seventh grade, she had a life-changing encounter with a visitor to her social studies class that began with a seemingly simple question: “Where are you going to high school?”
Viridiana’s answer led to an enduring friendship and a deep understanding of the importance of Latino mentorship and leadership – one she models as a member of the first cohort of ACE’s Latino Educator and Administrator Development (LEAD) and as a first-year member of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.
On that fateful day at St. Gertrude the Great in Los Angeles, Viridiana met Rachel Moreno, an academic supervisor for ACE Teaching Fellows who was visiting Viridiana’s social studies teacher, Brick Maier of ACE 8. Rachel kept in contact with Viridiana when she entered her first year at Saint Joseph High School and even helped Viridiana map out a path that would eventually lead her to Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“Dr. Moreno provided great support for me and my family in getting me to Saint Mary’s,” Viridiana says. “She helped me figure out what classes I needed to take, what after-school activities I should get involved in, and how to work through the application process. She was a constant throughout my life.”
Viridiana started teaching in Los Angeles after graduating from Saint Mary’s, and Rachel continued to offer her support in the form of phone calls and even classroom visits.
“My first year of teaching felt terrible, and I called Dr. Moreno all the time,” Viridiana recalls. “She visited me wherever I was teaching, first at St. Michael’s School and then at Our Lady of the Rosary. She was always willing to help people, especially students.”
Rachel passed away in February 2021 after battling pancreatic cancer, but her legacy continues to inspire Viridiana. Now the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Los Angeles, Viridiana aspires to serve as a role model for students in the same way that Dr. Moreno served as a role model for her.
“I want to help students, especially our Latino students,” Viridiana says. “Many of our students will be first-generation college students, and their parents want them to have a good education, but they don’t know the college application process. They’re learning along the way. I can relate to that because when I was in high school, my parents knew that I had to go to college but we had to figure out the process. Dr. Moreno was a great support system for me and my family.”
For Viridiana, LEAD was an opportunity to strengthen her leadership skills and to care for others as Rachel had cared for her. Now in its third year, LEAD is a fellowship program designed to invite, advance, and retain Latino educators in Catholic schools.
“Dr. Moreno told me, ‘I think you should do this program,’” Viridiana says. “I trusted her completely, so I decided to join the program, and it was a great experience. In LEAD, that’s where discernment started to happen for me.” In fact, Viridiana was LEAD’s very first applicant.
Over the course of the year-long program, LEADers meet monthly in small groups with mentors who are Latino leaders at various levels of Catholic education. Before each meeting, LEADers engage with readings and other resources through a series of modules designed to provide both professional development and space for discernment. In LEAD, Latino educators reflect on what form they want their leadership to take—classroom, school, diocesan, or other forms of leadership.
“I started asking myself, ‘What is my next step?’” Viridiana recalls. “Dr. Moreno had also been encouraging me to join the Remick Leadership Program for years, and I had pushed that off to the side for a while. I kept telling myself, ‘Maybe I’ll do that, but not yet.’ Participating in LEAD provided me a good path to decide, ‘This is what I need to do.’”
The opportunity for reflection and the community that LEAD provided are two of the things that Viridiana treasures most about her LEAD experience.
“I met great people in my LEAD cohort,” Viridiana says. “Together we were able to reflect and discern that we still want to continue on this mission of serving Catholic schools. It’s necessary to take time to step back and make that decision, especially if we’re serving in Catholic schools and serving young people. We want to be of service, not of disservice, to them.”
For Viridiana, the encouragement to join LEAD came in the form of a tap on the shoulder from a mentor whom she dearly respected and trusted. As she continues her own journey of leadership in Catholic education, Viridiana wants to give that same nudge to other Latino educators.
“It’s important just to open the door,” Viridiana says. “Even if you decide that you’re going to remain a teacher, you’re still leading your students and their families through the school year. It’s important to see yourself as a leader because how we see ourselves is how our students see us, and then they see themselves in that way.”