It’s impossible to look at Erica Mosca’s scholastic resume and not come away impressed: Full-ride scholarship to Boston University followed by consecutive master’s degrees from UNLV and Harvard.
Even more impressive: Those academic achievements came against some serious odds.
As the daughter of working-class parents who never attended college, including a father who immigrated from the Philippines, Mosca had to leap over multiple social and economic hurdles that stood between her and a life-changing education. Now, as the founder and executive director of Leaders in Training, Mosca has made it her mission to eradicate the systemic inequities she encountered during her education journey — hurdles that continue to prevent Southern Nevada’s minority and economically disadvantaged students from having a clear path to a college degree.
“As someone who was the first in my family who went to college and who grew up low-income, I had a very different perspective on the college experience,” said Mosca, ’10 M.Ed. Curriculum & Instruction. “And I knew I had to somehow use that experience for good.”Making that change started with a classroom slogan. She plastered "Leaders in Training" on her walls to motivate her fifth-grade students at Goldfarb Elementary School. With her own savings and 20 guinea-pig students in 2012, Mosca launched a nonprofit of the same name. Seven years later, the program boasts more than 160 high school and college members, all of whom have one thing in common: They are (or will be) first-generation college students — just like Mosca.
In childhood, she bounced from school to school as her father’s work took the family throughout California, from San Diego to Palm Springs to the Bay Area.
“A lot of the hard things we were going through with our family, especially all the moves and transiency, was because my parents didn’t have a college degree,” Mosca recalled. “So they always encouraged me to do well in school. And they put it out there that if I didn’t want [that] to be my life, I needed to get a college degree.”
Easier said than done, it turns out.
Facing a Hurdle
Despite relocating frequently — she attended four different schools in fourth grade alone — Mosca remained a dedicated, high-achieving student in San Diego and Palm Springs. But things changed during her junior year when she moved to Novato, California. The school district in affluent Marin County had a lot more money and resources than her previous districts had.
“School was always this one place where I did really well — it was my identity — and all of a sudden, everybody around me knew more than I did,” she said. “I was getting D's and F's, and I didn’t really understand why. It wasn’t until years later that I began to figure out the reason: The students in that district received a much better education and had more opportunities than I had.”
Mosca quickly improved her grades by seeking after-school help, attending tutoring sessions, and joining a nonprofit college-access program called the Marin Education Fund. That planted the seeds for the nonprofit she would launch years later.
However, as she approached graduation in 2004, Mosca’s applications to elite four-year universities were met with, as she puts it, “rejection after rejection.” Then came the acceptance letter from Boston University, and with it a full scholarship. “So I didn’t even think twice about moving 3,000 miles away,” she said.
Mosca majored in journalism with the intent of becoming an education reporter. Her course assignments took her into public schools in the Boston area to observe classrooms and after-school programs. That’s when she realized “I’d rather be the person doing the work in the classroom than reporting on it.”
So after earning her bachelor’s degree, Mosca enrolled in Teach for America, a nonprofit that attempts to achieve widespread education equity by dispatching young teachers to disadvantaged schools across the nation. Mosca was placed in a fifth-grade classroom at Goldfarb Elementary in East Las Vegas and began pursuing her master’s degree at UNLV at night.
At Goldfarb, Mosca established her classroom theme: Leaders in Training. The general idea was to encourage students to develop lifelong leadership skills, along with a belief that, just like her, they could navigate around whatever barriers they encountered and make it to college. “I used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someday this could be an after-school program?’ But it was just such a big concept that I couldn’t actually bring myself to believe it would happen.”
Spin things forward to 2011. After departing Harvard with her second master’s degree — this one in education policy and management — Mosca had an abundance of career options and considered doing policy work in Washington, D.C. But by now, she had planted roots in Las Vegas, including purchasing a home in East Las Vegas and moving her parents to the valley. It also occurred to her that she always focused her Harvard research papers on the educational inequities in Clark County and Nevada.
“That one year in policy school really gave me the context for everything I had experienced in my two years at Goldfarb,” Mosca said. “So I wanted to come back and help improve things here, feeling like I had lot of resources and perspectives that a lot of other people may not have had.”
Mosca took a job as a project manager with the Clark County School District (CCSD), but quickly realized her high-level policy work wasn’t going to impact disadvantaged kids to the degree she hoped. She had kept in touch with her former Goldfarb students, who by now were in high school and expressing doubts about college to their old fifth-grade teacher. That’s when Mosca dove head first into creating Leaders in Training, following up her day at CCSD by spending nights working on her nonprofit application, recruiting board members, and fundraising.
She reached out to former students. “I would call their parents and say, ‘Hey, remember what we did in class back in 2008? We’re going to make it a legit thing!’”
In August 2012, armed with her nonprofit documents and a depleted savings account, Mosca took 20 high school freshmen up to Mount Charleston for the first official Leaders in Training meeting. Subsequent meetings would take place at Goldfarb in a portable classroom the principal turned over to Mosca, who still lives 16 houses from the school’s entrance.
From Student to Graduate to Mentor
This fall, that initial group of Leaders in Training members, which Mosca refers to as Cohort 1, will be entering their senior year of college. Well, except for one. Angel Edwards-Fort, who was the lone high school sophomore to join Cohort 1, became the first Leaders in Training member — and first in her family — to graduate college, earning an information systems degree from UNR in May.
As she embarks on her career, Edwards-Fort — along with the other Leaders in Training alumni who follow — will stay connected with the program as a mentor for future first-generation college students. A core element of the program is a pay-it-forward community commitment, regardless of where alumni end up settling.
“We’re training our members in high school to have leadership and to get to college, but also to be critically conscious,” Mosca said. “That means understanding inequities and choosing to be somebody who does something to fix them.
“People who live in low-income communities, they don’t get to start the race at the starting line — they start too far behind it to have a chance. Other [education nonprofits] are trying to fill in that gap, but we’re different in that we’re trying to push beyond that. We have such high expectations that we never talk to our members about high school graduation — of course you’re going to graduate from high school. But what are you going to do next to help other people so that this [broken] system no longer exists?”
While Mosca’s former Goldfarb students comprised Leaders in Training’s first two cohorts, membership since then has grown through word-of-mouth, usually through the encouragement of current members. As of spring 2019, she said members represent 24 Southern Nevada high schools, mostly from the valley’s north and east sides.
The roughly 90 members enrolled this academic year in the four-year high school program are required to attend either weekly or monthly meetings as well as commit to regular volunteer work, grade checks, parent meetings, and summer check-ins.
There are another 70 members now in the four-year college program. They participate in a monthly video conference call with Mosca and other Leaders in Training officers. Also, they’re obligated to volunteer once a semester with the program, and after each semester they must turn in their grades, show proof of registration for the ensuing semester, and show proof that their tuition is paid in full.
And with that, Mosca has proof her program is working: Leaders in Training boasts a 92 percent college persistence rate. And the members are being accepted to universities all over the country, from UNLV — where 24 students are enrolled — to the University of Michigan, which gave a full scholarship to a first-generation Latino student who just graduated from Las Vegas High School.
“We’re starting to have these tangible examples that prove if you just empower students with equitable opportunities, they can rise,” Mosca said.
As it prepares to welcome Cohort 7 this fall, Leaders in Training is now funded in part by the United Way, and Mosca said she’s on track to raise more than $250,000 this fiscal year — a sharp increase from the less than $10,000 she invested to launch the program. Still, funding remains a struggle, but Mosca is hopeful that as the number of first-generation college graduates mounts, so too will corporate donations.
As for the ultimate goal? It’s two-pronged: Mosca wants to see Leaders in Training alumni in positions of power and making a difference in disadvantages communities like East and North Las Vegas. And she wants to see them reach the highest heights in their chosen careers. “When the members of Leaders in Training become more successful than I could’ve ever hoped to be,” Mosca said, “then I’ll know we did our job.”