Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in May 2021 undergraduate student Tommy Teravainen (C‘22) interviewed Nora Frias in Nativity Preparatory School, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA. In this interview, she discusses her work as director of the Graduate Support Office, one of the newer programs within Nativity.
All right. My first question for you is, would you mind just sharing a little bit about your educational and professional background that led up to your time in the Grad Support office here at Nativity Prep?
Okay, cool. So I am Nora Frias, I'm the director of graduate support. This is my sixth year here at Nativity. For my educational and professional background, I did my undergrad at BC [Boston College]. So that was kind of my first exposure to Jesuit education. I didn't really know what I was getting into. And I drank the Kool Aid, so to say. And I think honestly, the aspect of Jesuit education that really stuck with me and then I breathed in heavily was service and service with means towards social justice. I think it was at BC that I identified education as a career passion. I didn't want to be a teacher. So I started to think about what are the other ways to be in education without being in the classroom. I worked for a couple of programs at BC. And then I did AmeriCorps for a year: I worked for the Posse Foundation, the National Leadership merit-based scholarship, then I worked for KIPP Charter Schools.
I got my master's in higher education administration. So I had intentions of being in the higher ed space, being in student affairs. So I wanted to think about multicultural student affairs. And then it was while I was in grad school that I started doing a lot more research into the K-12 space. Like what happens for students, with students, before they even step foot onto a college campus. And specifically for underrepresented minorities, students of color, first-generation college students. That was really, I think, where my passion lies. And so that's honestly what my career has been in its entirety is college access and success, equity for underrepresented students. So at KIPP, I was doing college counseling, I was doing college persistence, support, and then that led me here. Do you have a sense of what Graduate Support does? Our office?
That was gonna be my next question.
Okay, great, perfect. So I'll give you that pitch. So graduate support is essentially our lifelong commitment to Nativity grads. And so Nativity started, right, as a means to create access to opportunities for our students. And I think that's a very cliché term, right, to break the cycle of poverty for our students and our families. Students were coming here, they were getting a rigorous education. Extended day, extended year, all the things were going off to really competitive high schools. I think quickly, the school is realizing that they were struggling at these competitive high schools, and not for a lack of ability. But because it's a really abrupt cultural and academic shift for some of them, for a lot of them, for most of them. And so that's when Graduate Support started. It was one woman, Kathy Schultz as a volunteer, who was like, “I'm gonna keep track of the guys and keep connected with them and help them out through things,” and when they got into disciplinary issues, or academic issues, she was there as an advocate. So since then, Graduate Support has evolved into this full-fledged operation, which I describe as proactive measures to ensure the success and educational completion for our students. So from the time they're in seventh grade, we're working closely with them to start talking about high school.
The high school landscape here in Boston is a beast in and of itself. They have a lot of choices in charter schools, public schools, boarding schools, Catholic schools, independent schools—there are a lot of choices. And so we navigate them and guide them through that process. But most of them and their families have never done that before. Until we walk alongside them through that. And then regardless of what high school they go to, these guys are all the guys in high school currently. We continue to be in touch, we continue to support them in any way we can. So that can be everything from, like, I've been in a disciplinary hearing for some of our grads at their high schools. We come to their campus typically and visit them if there's like a cohort of them at that respective high school. Then when they get to junior year, we're taking them on college trips, we rent a van to go visit colleges. They get to senior year and they're coming in for college application support.
They have their high schools as their kind of most immediate support system. But we found very early on that our high schools or high school partners, as well intentioned as they are, aren't always equipped to support our students in all the ways that they need. Or in a college counseling piece, at least, not necessarily used to doing college counseling with our profile of student. These are very wealthy, affluent high schools. And so the college counseling just looks different, right, for a student who's, you know, sixteenth generation in their family to go to college, right, versus first. And so that's kind of where we fill in with supplemental support. Then it pushed into college. Before it was like, let's just get them to college. Now let's get them through college. And kind of I think the next venture for Graduate Support is the career. What we are naturally are the students' built-in network.
I think for most students, their network comes from the family, or their friends. For our students, as they're graduating from college, their first in the network is Nativity. We're kind of like an extended family member that has connections all over the place, and want to make sure that our students have access to that. So Graduate Support does a little bit of everything. Because we've been around for 30 years, our alumni, our oldest alumni are, like, pushing 40. So there's also a responsibility for us to do some alumni cultivation, to ensure that we know all the amazing things our grads are doing to ensure that they're connected back to Nativity, that they're on the board, that they, you know, that they're mentoring the younger students, that they're just connected, which is really unique. Like, I think most people try to forget their middle school years. Our students don't. And I'm sure you've gotten this from your student interviews, like pretty much a brotherhood, a community, a family. And so our goal is to ensure that that sticks with them for the rest of their lives, essentially. It's pretty amazing. Yeah, so that's my grad support pitch.
Awesome. Thank you for sharing that with me. So my next question is whether this is a program that is unique to Nativity Prep Boston, or if it is found in other Nativity schools as well?
I think now it is in every Nativity school; it is part of the Nativity model, I would say. And not just Nativity schools. So there's a network of schools here in the area, who all have, like, we all call it something differently, like alumni support services, post-secondary success, graduate support, whatever it's called; like, charter schools in the area, do it now. So there's like a network of us who do this work. It's what I did at KIPP, same thing I did: I worked with students who had already graduated from KIPP schools. But I do know that specifically for Nativity, it is not part of a staple of a Nativity model.
My next question was, do you think the program has been successful so far? In addition to that, what do you use as evaluation metrics to gauge success? Yeah.
Do I think it's successful?
Because of our principles alone, I think that's a measure of success. If I'm being honest, I think the number of grads who come back to work here is a measure of success. We obviously also measure success around college completion, college matriculation and college completion. It is, I will admit, that that can be a tricky measure of success. Because what we…we want the bar to be high, and we know that college completion leads to greater life outcomes. And I still think we have a responsibility to serve students who don't go to college, for whatever reason, and for whom college is not the best next step. So it can be a tricky balance of, like, we want to promote college, go, you can do it, we believe in you. We want to promote that as a measure of success.
What we don't want to happen, which I think happens, is it can create, particularly for young boys, a sense of shame if they don't, and so then they don't come back and they don't get support services from us. And in my opinion, those are actually the students who we should be serving, we have a calling to serve. So it's a tricky balance of wanting to set high standards and not wanting to push anyone out in that process. So I think that's just about relationships. And I would say that that's another way in which, in the last few years, graduate support has been really successful is in relationship building. To me, that's what is at the root of my work. I have to build a relationship with respect, of trust, of dependability. So that students know and grads know that they can always kind of come back here and have somebody to lean on. That they like to trust the institution, regardless of who's in that seat, you know?
So I think it's been successful. I think we're again, we're always kind of looking to like, what's next? Now it's the career, after that it's going to be something else, I'm sure. And the college access landscape is ever evolving. What do you think about it? More schools are going to go test optional. What does that mean for our students? I think about college debt. What does that mean for our students? Like, think about this new focus on diversity, equity, inclusion. What does that mean for our students in the career space, as they're applying for jobs as black and brown men? So yeah, so to me, I think graduates should always be looking ahead.
Definitely. Yeah. And that was one of my other questions as well. Where do you see the programming going in the future?
I think about my career. I think that's another really good question. I have to think about that as I transition out of this role.
So is this your last school year here?
Yes, I'm done June 30.
Wow, and who is going to take your spot?
We don't know yet. Yet to be determined, they're in the hiring process. So I do have to kind of think about, you know, I think I know what legacy I've left behind. But I do need to think about things like, what's the next venture for this office? I think it's twofold. I envision the Nativity graduates running this school; I see our board, I want our board to be reflective of our student population. And I think alumni play a big role in that. That's the next venture, it's like, our grads are only getting more and more successful, right? Like, as there's more of them out in the world. They're a powerful force in and of themselves. And, yeah, I think our responsibilities as an institution, our accountability should be to our grads, that's how I view it. So I think for Graduate Support, again, is ever improving our current support services. There's certainly you know, things we could do more of and do better. I also am a firm believer that we don't have to be all things to all people. And there's probably community partners out there that we should be tapping into to do some of the things that we want to do. I'll give you this, for example financial literacy. For example, we've always talked about how we provide financial literacy for our grads. And like, we don't have to be those; there is a community partner out there we could probably partner with to provide that for our grants. So I would say I think that is another space to grow in this office is one of the community partners out there that we could be pulling in to help us with our work.
And related to something that you had mentioned. How many alumni are on the board now, or is it not as reflective of the alumni as it could be?
Yeah, so they're wrapping up this year. There's three board members that are a lot closer to rolling off. And we're rolling two more on so there will still be three next year. Yeah, I do know that the commitment of the board is always to have alumni.
What has been the most difficult challenge that you've been faced with?
I think it's the engagement piece, the, how do we re-engage the students who have disconnected from Nativity? For I find that they typically disconnect for some pretty valid reasons, right? And so I don't ever want to like, negate those. But yeah, they kind of drift off, right? And the older they get, the further they drift. And then that's kind of like, I think it gets harder. So I think that one challenge is just engagement with those who haven't engaged with us in a while. And I think the other challenge is, like not being all things to all people. There's only two of us in this office; I think there could be four and there'll be enough work to go around. So how do we work smarter and not harder? By tapping it, you know, and I think it's something simple, like, career stuff, right? So a student comes to me with like, resume help. And at my career center I understand the challenges and then go to their career center, right, or they go and they don't have a good experience, or they feel like they're just not helpful. It's like, you have like, I have a relationship with you. I want your help, right? So then here, I'm doing a resume review, which is fine, more than happy to and sometimes I wonder, like, am I the right person to be doing this? But it's because I have a relationship with a student. Right? So I just think that's a tricky balance. What are the things that we should be outsourcing and we feel comfortable outsourcing without compromising the relationship, right? Because I never want a student to feel shunned or turned away, which I'm sure still happens.
And on a lighter note, because this will be my second last question. What has been the most rewarding part of the job?
I think it's the relationships (I know I keep harping on that word) but the community, the relationships; I know I'm going to keep in touch with some grads beyond my time here. Because there's a certain amount of vulnerability that has to happen for a young man to ask for help. Right? Be open to that. And like, we're in very close proximity to their, like, personal lives, right? Like, I have to ask for your taxes. I have to ask what your family life is like, you know? So there's a certain amount of intimacy and relationship that happens with students. That I hold as an honor, you know, that you've let me into your life like that. And I don't take that lightly. So I think that's what I'm going to take with me as some of the relationships that I've built with students and families. Our parent community is, like, top notch. The very fact that their sons are here is a doing of the families, right? And the doing of the families because they wanted more for their son. And so that end of itself, to me is like, you are, yeah, you know it’s amazing. It's empowering your partner in your son's education with us. You're an expert on your son. Like, we need you in this. You need us in this. Yeah, and so that happens while they're here. And that only continues after they leave too.
So yeah, I think that's what I'm taking with me: the relationships, that community, and I think that will aid me in whatever's next, in honoring the time it takes to build relationships, that you can't rush that, you can't, you can't rush that, you can't program that, you can't operationalize that. That's just natural, organic. Things that take time, and you have to just give it that time, you know, to build relationships. I think the relationships move the work forward, and more than then, like, the program or the spreadsheet or the you know, like, yeah.
So I think our mission in and of itself is set up to create equity. I think sometimes we rest on it, right, to be critical about space. I think we rest on our mission and hope that it will just happen innately. Some of it does. And I think there's space for it to be done more intentionally, if that makes sense. Just by the sheer fact of the demographic that we serve, our students are getting exposure and learning from folks of different backgrounds. They're feeling empowered in their identities here as young men of color.
Again, all of that is just kind of in passing. And it happens. And I see it happening, just kind of in passing. And then I always think about, like, where are the spaces where we should be doing it more intentionally and more directly? So a lot of this just happens naturally, right? Like we just naturally, like, help educate loving students, we just help educate students committed to justice. Again, just like innately out of our mission, and then I always wonder like, “Okay, well, what are the spaces where we should be coming at it a little bit harder?” I don't have an answer. Because I think it's everywhere. It could exist. Everywhere in anywhere, like, it should exist in the work of this office. It should exist in the curriculum, it should exist in our student discipline system. It should exist in our retention and recruitment of faculty. It should exist in our board. It should, you know, like, it really should exist everywhere. So I don't have an answer of how to do it more intentionally, indirectly. I guess, I just hope that … It is always at the top of our mind, right. That we are always kind of coming back to that piece. Like, is this rooted in justice? Is this rooted in our mission in equity? And again, I think the nature of education is that you get so caught up in the hustle bustle of it. It's hard to have those moments where you can stop and think, like, is this really rooted in justice?