On the Job: Two of a Kind

When Molly Delano ’98 returned to campus to speak at a career-planning conference, she inspired rising senior Ava Mateo ’20 and discovered a collaborator for educational equity.

Illustration of Ava Mateo and Molly Delano standing together looking at the reader

Ava Mateo ’20 slipped into her seat at last November’s preprofessional conference wondering whether any of the alumni participating would have interests and passions similar to hers. Mateo, who is studying child development and education, listened as accomplished graduates shared their work experiences—all the while pondering how she might create a career path that would enable her to take on systemic inequalities. Then Molly Delano ’98 began describing her two decades in public advocacy and education, and Mateo recognized a kindred spirit.

Delano was born in West Virginia, where her parents were organizers for the United Mine Workers of America, but grew up in Harlem, and her youth was steeped in lessons about social justice. At Sarah Lawrence, she studied sociology and labor history. After graduating, she devoted her life to youth and community development in underserved communities. At Global Kids, for example, she founded the organization’s Human Rights Activist Project.

“I was excited by the way Molly talked about her journey and about the importance of leadership,” Mateo recalls. Seated together later at the conference’s networking lunch, it was Mateo’s turn to impress. “I was blown away,” Delano says. “Ava was self-possessed and clear about her interests.”

Soon after their meeting, Delano offered Mateo an internship at Friends of WHEELS, the innovative student advocacy organization where Delano is executive director. Embedded at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (a K–12 public school in Manhattan), Friends of WHEELS provides counseling, extracurricular experiences, and other support services. The goal: Ensuring that every student who wants to pursue postsecondary education has that opportunity.

Almost all WHEELS students are students of color and from low-income communities. Of those who go to college, 90 percent are the first in their families to do so. It’s a demographic that faces outsized challenges and has a disheartening six-year college graduation rate. Yet, while the national rate is only about 10 percent, the WHEELS outcome is over 50 percent. “That’s our baseline,” Delano says. “The truth is, that’s good work, but we are determined to make it better.”

To do so, Delano and the organization’s board of directors are creating a three-year strategic plan to assess student needs and best practices; Mateo is an integral part of that process. Over the summer, Mateo worked side by side with a consultant to develop new ideas for getting more students into college—and helping them finish. Starting the project at the end of the academic year was a boon. “During the last two weeks of school, the graduating students presented their senior portfolios,” Mateo says. “It’s hard to stay positive sometimes, with all the negative things happening in the world, but these students’ stories are incredibly inspiring.”

Mateo returned to Sarah Lawrence this fall for her senior year, but she continues to work with Delano on the final draft of the plan. While they want to expand connections with the community and partnerships with colleges, law firms, and other organizations, “Our alumni are our biggest asset,” Delano says. “I can talk my ninth-graders’ ears off about the importance of doing a summer enrichment program, but if an alum who is a junior at SUNY Albany comes into that classroom and says, ‘Hey, this is what you have to do,’ our students listen.”