Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

Senior Program Officer Gabriela Torres’ passion for equity has its roots in her childhood in East Chicago, Indiana. The community sits just west of the Illinois border, as part of the Greater Chicago Area. As a historic steel mill town, it comprises a diverse group of immigrants and migrants from across the world.

“For the Mexican-American community, there was a great sense of pride for who we are and where we came from,” said Torres. “We’d celebrate that through annual parades and other cultural celebrations throughout the year.”

Torres’ pride in her Latina heritage only grew from there, going hand in hand with a sense of service and commitment to communidad. As the only child of a single mother, she credits her tightly knit maternal family with her upbringing. Torres said she looked up to her mother, grandmother, and aunts as role models, taking after them in their dedication to their families and community. She was also very close to her cousins, who she saw more as siblings. Torres said they would walk home from school together every day.

“I’ve tried to live up to the example set by the strong women in my family in every role and engagement I’ve undertaken – especially my mother, who has steadfastly supported all of my goals,” said Torres. “All of these role models have served as inspiration and pillars of what it looks like to demonstrate strength in the face of adversity and to do so with a sense of pride in who they are and what they are dedicating their life to.”

After Torres completed middle school, it was her mother’s new job at the local Catholic church that enabled her to transition, tuition-free, to a Catholic high school. Her new school afforded her a number of critical opportunities.

“I was able to take AP classes, work with teachers who were assigned smaller class sizes, and participate in a robust set of extracurriculars that allowed me to engage with my school community as more than just an academic being,” said Torres. “I had a dedicated school counselor who asked and listened to my postsecondary interest and was able to get a student representative from my first choice college to visit me and talk to me about his experience at this college, which was halfway across the country.”

Torres credits the opportunities provided by her high school experience with helping her successfully apply to a range of colleges – including the one she would eventually attend, Boston College (BC).

While many of her friends attended the nearby University of Notre Dame, Torres was looking to strike out on her own and experience a new part of the country.

“My mom wasn’t able to go far for her college experience at Indiana University,” said Torres. “But I think she would have if she had had the finances. She was enthusiastic about me pursuing my goals.”

In her new environment at BC, Torres majored in Hispanic Studies knowing that whatever career she chose to pursue in the future, her ability to read and write in Spanish would enable her to continue to serve her community. She participated in service-oriented organizations and social justice classes with students largely from the East and West Coasts. Torres spent every year volunteering for one such organization in particular – Appa Volunteers – spending every spring break in a new city in service of low-income communities. Torres remains friends with her fellow Appa Volunteers to this day.

It was that service mindset that led to Torres’ first job out of college at the height of the Recession – a year with Americorps’ Massachusetts Promise Fellows in Boston. From there, she pursued a Master of Education in Higher and Postsecondary Education at Arizona State University while also navigating the distinct regional challenges of the education system in a new state. Torres also worked as a Summer Bridge Coordinator in Colorado and with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) before moving back to Chicago to work at St. Xavier University as the assistant director of campus life for multicultural and leadership programs. After working at St. Xavier, Torres worked for OneGoal, a teacher-led college persistence organization.

The lessons learned from her work across the country and during her time at OneGoal is something Torres has brought with her to the foundation, which she joined in 2019.

“I’ve learned the relevance of regionality and community in student success. When working on national or cross-region scaling efforts, it’s impossible to be successful in those efforts without an understanding of the state-based policies and local community efforts that serve as the foundation for a students’ educational experience,” said Torres. “Because postsecondary education is often the culmination of a student’s educational journey that has spanned years, how that student has been supported, or not, over the course of that time will impact the needs of that student once they enroll in their postsecondary programs.”

At the foundation, Torres works on the Intermediaries for Scale program, with organizations that have demonstrated commitment and experience in supporting institutions in:

  1. Reducing college success disparities by race and income;
  2. Promoting continuous learning and improvement through the use of data; and
  3. Identifying, implementing, and evaluating significant campus-level changes in policy and practice.

Torres directly works with four of the 13 intermediaries to make sure they have the support they need to make a difference, in addition to looking at the pulse of the overall cohort to develop and adapt their strategy over time.

When looking at education in general, Torres says she’s most excited about the inclusion of student, faculty, staff, and administrators who have historically been marginalized at institutions of higher education – and wants that type of approach to occur more often, across the board.

“Even though my work since high school has always been in the educational sector, my true passion is racial equity,” said Torres. “Whether it be the community college sector or four-year sector, there are so many experiences that are unique to a student’s higher education journey, and so unique to their racialized experience in the country. It’s always been important to me to center a student’s cultural identity in educational strategy. The more I’ve been able to understand about my own cultural identity, the more I’ve been able to support students.”

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Read more of the “People Behind Postsecondary Success” series: