Empowering First Gen Students to Be Leaders

A conversation with Leaders-in-Training’s Erica Mosca (CGS’06, COM’08)

September 27, 2018
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They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.

They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.

Erica Mosca is a first-generation college graduate. Her father was born in the Philippines, her mother is Filipino American, and Mosca was born and raised in California. Her parents struggled to pay the bills on minimum wage paychecks, with Mosca helping out by juggling two jobs all through high school.

Mosca (CGS’06, COM’08) is the founding executive director of Leaders in Training (LIT), a Las Vegas–based nonprofit that empowers first-generation students to get into college—and graduate—and become leaders in their communities.  

After graduating summa cum laude from BU—and winning induction into the Scarlet Key Society, the University’s highest honor for a student leader—she joined Teach for America and spent two years teaching fifth grade in the East Las Vegas neighborhood. She then earned a master’s in education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a master’s in policy and management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Returning to Las Vegas from Cambridge in 2011, she worked for a year as a consultant in the Clark County District school superintendent’s office.

In 2012, Mosca scraped together $2,000 she’d saved and founded Leaders in Training, in a trailer at the elementary school where she used to teach.

Today LIT has five paid staff (Mosca is the only one who’s full-time) and an office suite in a strip mall. Her team offers its students free tutoring, mentoring, SAT prep, help navigating college admissions—and college itself—and workshops ranging from educational inequities to leadership skills. LIT has 130 students; 48 have graduated from high school and of those, 46 are in college. “One is in the Navy, one is out of school,” Mosca says. “We’re working to get him back.”

BU Today spoke with Mosca recently about her years at BU, why she started LIT, and how it helps the students it serves.

Mosca prepares LIT’s students to navigate college campuses that aren’t set up for first-generation students like them.

  1. BU Today: What was your experience like at BU as a first-generation student?

    Mosca: For me, going to BU was getting on a red-eye from California with two pieces of luggage. One suitcase got stolen at the airport. I was 18, I didn’t know you were supposed to go to baggage claim right away, so I stopped at Burger King for breakfast first. Now, it’s funny, right?

    I figured out how to take the T, and I got to 575 Commonwealth Avenue [the dorm]. The security guard’s name was Ken. He looked confused as to why I was moving myself in alone, but he was really nice. Then I see my roommate—who was awesome and we ended up being best friends; her father was a graduate of MIT and he was literally building her an ethernet cord because there was no Wi-Fi.

    In California, integration is the norm. I remember the culture shock of everything feeling very segregated and not diverse. I got very active at BU, and I found my people. My closest friend, Paloma Martinez (CAS’08, COM’08), was Latino. She’s a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco now.

    At first I didn’t even know if I was meant to be at BU. But I got a really good GPA that fall—I was always studying—and then I thought, okay, I can be here.

    I probably wouldn’t have stayed at BU without the College of General Studies. The staff really cared about me. Dean [associate dean for student academic life] [Stacy] Godnick recommended Teach for America to me when I was a sophomore. James Wilcox, [a CGS associate professor emeritus of humanities], was the founding funder of LIT. When I graduated from Harvard, he took me to dinner and gave me a check for $500.

    I think I succeeded at BU because I found my support system, and not just with a diverse group who got it.

  2. Did you experience any subtle forms of intolerance at BU?

    For me, it was more about classism—little things. I worked in the dining hall. I used to wear the hat and I was serving my fellow classmates food, but I was also competing against them for grades. I felt so demeaned.

  3. How did you handle things like that?

    I remembered my parents and some tough experiences growing up—being on food stamps, being evicted. I knew that at BU I was living a privileged life in a bubble on Commonwealth Avenue. I wasn’t working at a minimum wage job like so many other people in my family. I knew why I was in college—so I could help my family and other people. I took that very seriously. It didn’t matter that I had to serve other people food.

“A lot of first-generation students don’t want to go to college because they want to work and help their parents now. They feel like it’s their responsibility.”

  1. Why did you get into this work?

    People tell you the world is equal. I believed that. Then when I got to BU, I saw that wasn’t true. There were people who had SAT classes in their high schools, who went to boarding schools where the counselor-to-student ratio was 1:25.

    When Teach for America sent me to Las Vegas, that’s when I began to really understand why there are gaps and inequities. Nevada is consistently ranked lowest in the United States in terms of public education.

    I went in front of these 10-year-olds and I told them that if they worked hard, they’d get to college and they would make it. They were eighth graders when I came back, and I saw that the system wasn’t going to make that dream come true. They were getting the short end of the stick. They were in schools with fewer teachers and resources. I had lied to them. I felt so lucky to have gone to college. I wanted to help other people do that. If students and families are offered equitable opportunities, they can rise.

  2. Can you talk a little about your early education?

    We moved a lot when I was growing up. I went to four or five different elementary schools. I was always a high flyer at school, but when I was 16 we moved to Novato, Calif., and I went to the high school there. Suddenly I was struggling. It was my first experience with educational inequity. The other schools I’d gone to were more working-class. Novato was middle class/upper class. It was a more competitive school. I worked really hard and I figured it out. I don’t think I would’ve gotten into BU if I hadn’t gone to Novato.

    It also helped that I did a nonprofit college access program. It was about exposure—they took you to colleges; I had a college mentor.

    I get that my entire experience is an “only-in-America” story. My dad lived in the Philippines, in a village with no electricity or regular running water. In one generation, his daughter has a master’s degree from Harvard. That’s an American story, but it’s such an exception. That’s what we’re trying to change.

Erica Mosca with LIT high school seniors Germain Martinez (from left), April Leyva, Alejandra Ceja; Mosca stresses to LIT’s students that their goal is to graduate from college—and come home to break systemic barriers in East and North Las Vegas.

  1. What are some of the barriers your students face?

    A lot of first-generation students don’t want to go to college because they want to work and help their parents now. They feel like it’s their responsibility.

    We’re still trying to prove that our kids can do it—that it’s possible. East Las Vegas is very diverse. But it’s still a place where, if you’re Latino and you go to school, you get stereotyped that you’re going to be a maid or a valet.

  2. How does your background help you in your work?

    I actually experienced all these things that we’re trying to change. I can go into a boardroom filled with rich white men and pitch to them, and that night I can go to a cookout with our families. I’m very grounded in the community. I feel more comfortable there than I do in the boardroom, but I can play both roles. I call it a beautiful burden. You play the game to change the game.

  3. Do they accept you in the boardrooms?

    They do now.

  4. What is your biggest challenge now?

    I’m struggling to get resources for our kids. I don’t have big-name board members. I’m not independently wealthy. If people understood equity from all sides, they would give us money. I’m the kid they wanted to help a decade ago, two decades ago—and look what I did.

Do you know BU alumni, faculty, and staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers themselves? Email Cindy Buccini at cbuccini@bu.edu and recommend them for our series “Opening Doors.”

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Empowering First Gen Students to Be Leaders

  • Sara Rimer

    Senior Contributing Editor

    Sara Rimer

    Sara Rimer A journalist for more than three decades, Sara Rimer worked at the Miami Herald, Washington Post and, for 26 years, the New York Times, where she was the New England bureau chief, and a national reporter covering education, aging, immigration, and other social justice issues. Her stories on the death penalty’s inequities were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Her journalism honors include Columbia University’s Meyer Berger award for in-depth human interest reporting. She holds a BA degree in American Studies from the University of Michigan. Profile

    She can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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There are 3 comments on Empowering First Gen Students to Be Leaders

  1. This is so inspiring and motivating Erica. As a first generation Latina graduate student this story reminds me a lot of what BU has been like during these first weeks of class. It encourages me to keep trying harder to be able to go back to Colombia, help my family and all my underprivileged students who need someone to tell them it is possible and that they can actually do it. Strenght to resist a government (Colombian government) that invest three times in war than what they invest in education, strenght to believe despite all the adversities it is possible for more students to reach their educational dreams and start breaking those cycles of inequity that for years have been perpetuated.

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