Alumni Spotlight: Isabel Argoti, Collegiate Directions

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Isabel Argoti is Program Manager for Career Mentoring at Collegiate Directions, a local nonprofit organization that empowers First Generation Low Income students to achieve their highest potential through higher education. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Isabel about her work leading the development, implementation, and management of a new Career Mentoring Scholars Program at CDI, and her experience in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Argoti: I have always found myself trying to give back to communities. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, especially during my college years, and I realized I wanted to make the shift towards the nonprofit sector after finishing my undergraduate degree in Architecture. I was always going back to education and  helping young girls in educational programs, and I think that’s just a result of how I was brought up. I was the first in my immigrant family to go to college, and there were a lot of programs that helped me throughout school, including meal assistance and college access programs. Both helped to expose me to different resources and opportunities, and so I wanted to do that for others. I think my passion for education gave me a really good background in knowing how to start and execute new educational programs and initiatives. Going into nonprofit work, I realized just how expansive the sector is. It gave me the breath of options to pursue what I wanted to pursue. I’ve worked in the government space in the past, and I’d like to say that the nonprofit space is a lot more flexible. Nonprofit organizations basically do the work that the government can’t or doesn’t want to do. It is a more quick pace. You’re not going through layers of approval and policy as much as you do with the government. And I appreciate that because I think there’s a lot more trust in the leaders that are doing this work, and you really want to do it for a good cause.

CPNL: At Collegiate Directions (CDI) you successfully led the development, implementation, and management of a new Scholars Program curriculum, which has resulted in 97% of CDI Scholars graduating from college within six years. What was the process like of implementing this new curriculum and what advice would you give to other leaders in this field looking to do something similar?

Argoti: The 97% statistic has been a cornerstone for CDI for a long time. We’ve had this existing scholars program since we started the organization and that has been our main focus until recently. What I’m running now is the career mentoring program, which focuses on the college side, and acts as an extension of the Scholars program. It explores what’s happening after graduation. We were realizing that we need to keep our college students, specifically engaged, connected, and feeling empowered for their next steps. With CDI as a college access organization, we’re doing amazing work in getting students through the college application process, selecting schools and eventually enrolling and graduating. But we’re finding hiccups along the way, with questions like,  what’s happening with my degree? Where am I going after graduation?  How do I apply for an internship? Do I even like my major anymore? Is it okay to switch up? And so we’re really trying to build a curriculum around teaching students how to properly network within their field of study, so they feel comfortable taking the next step in their professional career.  Helping them build exposure before entering into the real world.

The curriculum does not just revolve around academic or career resources, it helps students answer real-life questions like what does it mean to grow up? What does it mean to graduate and not live at home anymore? A lot of those conversations that don’t always get talked about or addressed. There has been a lot of trial and error, especially this past year, in terms of how we are getting the students that information and keeping them engaged. We have been trying to pilot programs differently, whether it’s webinars, one-on-one meetings, or virtual conferences. A piece of advice that I have for professionals going into the field of nonprofit education, is always try new things. I think you really have to have your audience involved in the whole process. Most importantly, understanding their perspective and taking that feedback as you’re trying new things. So at CDI we are always doing surveys asking students what interests them or what challenges they are experiencing right now and how we can help them.

CPNL: Your work with Collegiate Directions focuses on reducing the achievement and opportunity gap that disproportionately affects First-Generation Low-Income Students by providing students with the necessary academic, financial, and social-emotional resources to be successful. In what way has your personal experience as a First-Generation professional impacted the way you address the educational disparities that FGLI students face, and how has the COVID pandemic affected that?

Argoti: I think having that lived experience as a first generation professional helps me be a better advocate for my students, especially as we’re trying to implement new programs. Luckily, I’m not the only one on my team who is a first generation student or has been a scholar in the program themselves, and that’s very helpful because we can tap into our past experiences. Because of that, students are more comfortable talking to us about the challenges they are facing because they recognize that a lot of our staff come from the same background as they do. Those commonalities make it a lot easier for students to relate and build trust with our staff. I think building that type of relationship is important in any type of work. Especially valuing those lived experiences, whether it’s being a person of color, being first generation or being a woman. I think that’s really important both for the team and the community that you are trying to serve. During the pandemic though, all those needs were amplified a million times. The CDI worked on a lot of mental health curriculum, helping to create safe spaces for students, especially college students. We kind of sold them this dream that they were going to go to college, yet most of them started college virtually. And with that, I think a lot of our students had many other things going on, besides just academics and career. We had to be very aware of the financial and care-giving responsibilities many of our students were taking on as a result of the pandemic. Many of them were picking up shifts at their work, or spending more time at home taking care of their siblings, and all these other things that people and schools were not addressing yet. So it was really great to find other communities who had similar populations, and make sure that they’re aware about these challenges. I’m super proud of all of the meal and tech assistance that we’ve provided throughout Montgomery county. It really does take a village to help these students.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Argoti: I think we are so invested in our work and most of us are very passionate about the work we’re doing that we forget to create personal boundaries. We’re not just doing it because it pays the bills. We are doing it because we are passionate about these issues. But it’s really important to understand that we need to create boundaries for ourselves because we can’t do it all. I have many colleagues who are working Saturdays – but, you don’t need to work Saturdays. I think that’s the challenge, not within the work we do or the organization, but within ourselves, because we could work forever. We could do a bunch of different initiatives, do more things all the time. The work never stops. It’s really just creating that boundary for yourself, and telling yourself, “someone else can do it” or “I don’t need to do it right now”. I understand it’s hard to say no, but in the end that’s what’s best for your mental health and your wellbeing. And I think that’s a continuous challenge we all face, especially when things are coming up all the time and you want to fix everything.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Argoti: I think I have a much better understanding of the nonprofit space as a whole. I don’t think I realized how much I was connected to nonprofit work until I kind of stepped back and was starting to apply to this program. I realized, wow, I am really invested in this. The certificate program really gave me the background and understanding that I needed to improve my management skills and learn when to apply them. I can say that I definitely advocate for different initiatives with a lot more confidence now because I finally understand the bigger picture of how an organization should run. It’s definitely something I’m still applying to my work everyday. Luckily my organization is pretty small, so I can always ask questions too, which has been helpful. Now I’m also a lot more curious about the administrative side of management, and why things are done the way they are. The other big thing I got out of this program is the network. Even though my program was virtual, I built a really cool network with my cohort, where we discussed the different challenges we were all going through in our industries and I think that network was very helpful. My cohort was really supportive and I love that we could bounce ideas off one another and give each other honest advice. I don’t think I had that outside of my immediate team of people at work, so I didn’t expect to build those kinds of connections, but that was definitely a big help.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Argoti: Definitely do it, plain and simple. I think even when you’re going through the program, asking a ton of questions, making connections, building that network and finding ways to stay updated with the sector is so important. The work never stops and I’m very thankful for the networks that have opened up for me. Even reviewing the monthly newsletters and having access to different organizations that are doing this type of work is something that I would have not known about otherwise. I still keep in touch with my classmates and professors. I also keep a binder of all the stuff that I learned from the program with notes and reading materials that I’m always referencing, because it’s so much information in such a short period of time. It’s all about going back and applying this knowledge as you go back to work, and I think that’s the exciting part. You’re immediately applying it and seeing how it can make an impact. So I think, yes, definitely do it and take advantage of all the resources.