For Jessica Mardo ’13, advocacy work and education equality have always been passions.

A Political Science and English double major at Stonehill, she completed the Stonehill Service Corps at Brockton Interfaith Community where she helped advocate raising the minimum wage, and other economic justice causes.

“In all of this, I kept seeing education inequity as the common thread,” says Mardo, who also enrolled in AmeriCorps’s College Advising Corps.

“I became really passionate about college access work—but knew that access alone wasn’t the answer,” she said. “Students also need support while they’re actively pursuing degrees.”

Twist of Fate

And so it felt like a twist of fate when she later found herself working in the Central Office of the Washington D.C. Public School System and spotted a job posting for a “DCPS Persists coach.” Newly launched, DCPS Persists aims to provide college-bound D.C. Public Schools graduates with a support network to help them succeed in college, according to the DCPS site.

“I almost couldn’t believe it, since it truly seemed like the dream job,” said Mardo.

Another twist of fate: DCPS Persists was conceived of by a fellow Stonehill alum: Dr. Erin Ward Bibo ’03.

Bibo is Deputy Chief for College & Career Programs at D.C. Public Schools. She launched the initiative starting with the class of 2020, with the goals of raising the area’s college graduation rate, and setting its students on a path for success. Nearly 80 percent of jobs in the District of Columbia require some form of postsecondary education, according to the DCPS web site.

Navigating College Transitions

Each year, 750 college-bound DCPS grads will be matched with a coach, like Mardo, to help them navigate the college transition, learn what academic, financial and other resources are available to them. Coaches check in regularly throughout the first two years, and serve as an additional resource for both students and their families.

Coaches might help students navigate financial aid, course registration. Check in regularly by phone, text, e-mail, or in-person, answer general questions and offer general support for the student’s first two years of college.

“Many of our students are the first generation in their family to attend college, and having that extra person in their corner to help them self-advocate means that when they run up against a financial barrier or don’t understand how something works on campus, they are able to surmount it,” said Bibo.

Providing Support and Resources

The program is “literally changing the lives of our graduates,” she says. “Our coaches, like Jess Mardo, are doing incredible work to ensure that our graduates have the support and resources they need to persist.”

Bibo believes they’re the first public school district in the nation to launch such an initiative, but “we’re hoping to change that narrative. Can you imagine how many more students would succeed in college if they had help from a program like this?”

Bibo was also very involved with helping students while at Stonehill as a Political Science major—she was an R.A., introduced parents and new students to campus as a tour guide, was President of Into the Streets and Model UN, and participated in HOPE in Tennessee.

Shorty after arriving at D.C. Public Schools seven years ago, she saw there was a need for college guidance and high school graduate support.

But “we didn’t have the funding or the staff to do so. It was just so painful to see how much we poured into preparing our students for college and career only to see them stumble and need help that we couldn’t provide,” she says. “So we developed proposal after proposal and pitch after pitch until an incredibly generous partner, the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation, invested $10 million to support the initiative.”

It launched for the class of 2020. “While we didn’t plan to launch DCPS Persists in the middle of a global pandemic, I’m so thankful to be able to provide extra help to our students during this time,” said Bibo. One student “said she thought her coach answered a ‘silent call for help’ among many of her peers last spring.”

Life Changing Courses

Bibo credits Stonehill with “deepening my commitment to social justice.” Particularly life-changing was a course with Judy Henry and John Lanci on Theology and Community Service. Part of the course was a semester-long community service project.

“My project was tutoring new-to-the-country adult learners in English. Their stories of why they left their home countries, what they had faced coming to the United States, and what they had chosen to sacrifice for this opportunity were so inspiring—but despite their dedication, in many cases, they were unemployed or underemployed,” recalled Bibo. “Those mornings were some of my favorite times at Stonehill—the sense of accomplishment the learners and I felt when we mastered something new was incredible. I learned a lot about persistence and privilege that semester, and that's stuck with me ever since and contributes every day to the work I do now.”

As a coach, Mardo helps students and their families understand aid packages, navigate loans and course registration. Once the semester is underway, her day involves regular one-on-one check-ins with students, troubleshooting any issues, and making them aware of campus resources, like tutoring, counseling, and academic advising. She helps with FAFSA and scholarships renewals and helping students formulate their summer plans.

"It’s really about holistic support,” she says. “One of the best things about this program is the one-on-one support. Students know they can come to us with any issue—personal, academic, or financial—and know we’ll listen and work with them.”

Mardo said Stonehill prepared her for her coaching role by strengthening her communication and problem solving skills, and was particularly influenced by her Learning Community, “Native New England: Tribal Nations, Public Policy, & Politics of Sovereignty,” with Prof. Chris Wetzel and Prof. William Ewell.

Mardo also participated in HOPE trips to New Orleans, West Virginia and New York City. She was a student ambassador with Admissions, and participated Activism Club, volunteered with My Brother’s Keeper, participated in the inaugural year of the Stonehill Service Corps Brockton site.

“Stonehill molded me into a person of service,” Mardo said. “I feel thankful to have found a career that allows me to live out this mission every day.”