Abril Peña, a student at Baruch College, has already learned how to use her life experience for good. After benefitting from Virtual Enterprises International (VE) — a non-profit that helps students discover careers and prepare for a financially secure future — as a high school student and giving a moving speech about her involvement, she was invited to join the team. Now, as an Engagement Coordinator for the organization, she shares her passion for personal development with her students. One growth experience she prides herself on? Moving to Germany to work with a VE partner — completely alone.
We asked Peña more about her important work with VE and how she prioritizes her schoolwork, professional work and personal life. Then, she shared great advice for young women who want to get involved in their own communities.
How are you making an impact on your school or local community?
I’m an Engagement Coordinator and alumna of VE, a nonprofit business program serving 15,000 students from 430 schools that's geared towards helping students discover careers, igniting their entrepreneurial spirit, and preparing them for fulfilling, financially secure futures. Since 2015, I’ve been part of a wonderful team supporting students’ journeys towards professional and personal development as they start their own businesses, practice personal finance skills and test-drive dream careers.
What made you passionate about the project or role that's allowing you to make a difference?
My absolute favorite part of working with VE is that the program is an opportunity for social mobility to students who normally would not get the education, resources, and network that they need to thrive as young adults. In my own experience, I went to a high school where a majority of students came from lower-income households, were children of immigrants, and didn’t have high expectations for their futures. The students in our VE program, including me, were able to say they were learning something at school that they would use in the future. With 50% of our schools eligible for free or reduced lunch, it’s clear that we are helping provide access to a unique educational experience to students who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn vital career and life advice otherwise. The more I get to connect with our students, the more I realize the importance of the work my team and I are doing, and how much further we have to go.
How did you get in this position? Were you elected, selected, or did you start the project yourself? What steps did you take to fulfill this role? Did you study something specific, join this club first year, etc.
After graduating from the VE program in 2014, I was eager to give back to the program that brought me out of my shell after being a timid high schooler. For a year, I volunteered at every chance I could, even serving as an alumni panelist in between finals exams! During this time, I spoke about my experience developing my career readiness at the NYC Career & Technical Education Appreciation Event. The NYC VE Regional Director was in attendance, and he was so delighted to hear my speech that he and the national director eventually brought me for an interview when they began to recruit for the VE Fellowship program. Since then, I have rose from VE Fellow to Program Associate to Engagement Coordinator, all while pursuing my Bachelors Degree at Baruch College.
What other activities, projects, or jobs do you do at school? Spill your resume!
I’m going to be frank: I tried to join clubs numerous times at school, and none of them really clicked for me. Some opportunities or projects felt disingenuous for me to take if I was joining with the sole intention of making my resume pop or finding for the “right” connections (which, if this is your goal, then more power to you). Also, I needed money! So, instead, I worked as a hostess at a Harlem steakhouse, volunteered and then worked with VE, and traveled to 9 countries in the span of my college career. I speak highly about my short-lived hostess experience in particular because I learned some important skills there that set me up for my future career — a person’s bark is much bigger than their bite and kindness takes you farther than spite.
What is an accomplishment you're proud of?
In the fall of 2017, VE presented me the opportunity to intern with one of our partners — EUROPEN-PEN International — for three months in Germany. I was nearly 4,000 miles away from my comfort zone, and still managed to travel to four countries, work with eighty international students, help coordinate a case study competition and meet incredible colleagues along the way. It was the first time I was away from home for so long and my first true taste of independence. Looking back on it today, I use that experience as a foundation for what I can accomplish next, telling myself: “if I could do that, I can do this.”
What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
On my Germany trip, there were moments where I thought I didn’t belong there, where I thought I was in over my head, and where impostor syndrome and jet lag would keep me up for hours. I was in a new country, trying to understand a new culture and working full-time in a new office. After work, I was left with no one but myself. The fear of failure was a regular occurrence. But the more I forced myself to go outside, talk to people, travel to different cities and get lost, the more I learned about myself and my capabilities.
I asked my boss at the time what I should be doing to become better prepared for my future career and he replied: “I’m not saying this because you’re sitting here right now, but exactly what you’re doing now — traveling and meeting new people and experiencing different ways of living and working.”
By the end of the trip, I was very proud of the work I did with EUROPEN-PEN International. I experienced solo-traveling in four countries, and most importantly, I got the chance to better understand myself.
What advice do you have for women who want to make a difference at their school?
If you’ve been watching "Tidying Up" on Netflix, take the Marie Kondo approach to the choices you make at school, work, or in life: “does it bring you joy?” When looking for an opportunity to make a difference, sit down and list the things you care deeply about, what gets you excited, what you can talk about for hours. Then, have conversations with people who care about the same things you do and actively look for opportunities to work on said things.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? Why?
The first person who comes to mind is my former colleague and engagement extraordinaire, Shauna Ruda. Shauna, our former Director of Engagement, taught me how building authentic relationships with our donors and partners benefits everyone. She never misses an opportunity to uplift the people around her.
Lightning Round: What's Your Karaoke Song?
I belt out a mean “Buy You A Drank.” I am T-Pain. I do the auto-tune, and the snaps. I do it all.
Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Book?
A recent favorite is “Heart Talk” by Cleo Wade. Any given page is filled with warm advice and kind words that can be applied to your personal and professional life. I reach for it whenever I’m having a bad day.
Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Movie?
Before I admit my answer, let me make one thing clear: I hate a predictable plot. I often stray away from cheap romantic comedies that sell the idea that you have to be completely annoyed by someone before falling in love with them or that women are meant to be “saved” from single-hood. That being said, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” is definitely my go-to movie when I want a cozy rom-com without the cheesy plot.
Lightning Round: What's Your Favorite Quote?
Growing up, my mom was a huge fan of Frida Kahlo. She actually almost named me Frida. So, it comes to no surprise that one of my favorite quotes is by the Mexican artist herself: “Pies, para qué los quiero si tengo alas para volar?” (Translation: “Feet, what do I need them for when I have wings to fly?”)
Fairygodboss is all about celebrating female leaders — so every other week, we celebrate a young woman who is making a difference in her school or local community. Do you know a student leader who’s making an impact? Celebrate her and thank her by nominating her here.