Meet Our Staff
Selam Meharena, VP of Administration and Chief Finance Office and Ashley De Lucca, VP of Development and Communications share the distinct honor of having been with Project GRAD Los Angeles since its inception. Their insightfulness, historical perspective and commitment continue to be invaluable resources to our organization. The two friends and colleagues recently sat down with a cup of tea and reflected on Project GRAD Los Angeles’ past, present, and future.
Q: Share a bit about the circumstances that brought you to Project GRAD Los Angeles?
Ashley: Cheryl Mabey founded Project GRAD Los Angeles while still at Mount St. Mary’s College. It began originally as a Ford Foundation grant to replicate the success of Project GRAD Houston right here in Los Angeles. Cheryl was a natural choice to run the project because of her renown as an education reform leader. I had worked with her at Mount St. Mary’s and so when she asked me to join her at this start-up, I said, “Yes!” I started on September 7, 1999; I was the fifth employee.
Selam: I remember my first day as well. It was April 4, 2000. I had met Cheryl a few years before, while working at the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, an education reform effort working in LBUSD and LAUSD. I was so impressed by her dynamic leadership and energy. As the organization was ramping up, I joined as the Accounting Manager/Controller. That first year especially, we all had to work so hard, around the clock. But she inspired a shared vision for how we could help students achieve greater things for themselves.
Ashley: That first year was mostly spent doing the grassroots organizing work to recruit schools into the “Project GRAD family.” Lots and lots of meetings with the community, with parents, with teachers.
Q: Why have stayed with the same organization for over ten years?
Selam: When I came to the United States from east Africa, Eritrea in 1991, I already had a college degree in Accounting and thought I would work in the corporate world. But fate lead me to education. I truly believe education is a lifelong investment. I came to Project GRAD Los Angeles, and am still here, because of a belief that every child can learn and succeed, no matter their background. Project GRAD has always had a way of attracting a winning team. I like working with colleagues who have a passion to work with kids.
Ashley: I agree, I do feel a part of a winning team. I think I’ve stayed because I really believe in the mission. I like feeling part of a larger national movement in college access and success. It’s exciting to realize how much we’ve grown and evolved. Over the years, taken an innovative model, tailored it for our Los Angeles community and are today delivering a set of programs that helps students prepare to succeed in college. Plus the family environment here. Selam: Actually, most of the staff has been here five or more years. That’s really something!
Q: What are you most proud of Project GRAD Los Angeles for accomplishing in its first decade?
Selam: Well, staff longevity is one. Also, the annual Walk For Success. We visited hundreds and hundreds of homes in the first decade with a message about college and a message of hope. Many of those kids who we visited went on to work hard and later earned the Project GRAD college scholarship. I’m very proud of those graduates who came to work for us. I think there is a “Project GRAD way”, which means high quality services and great respect for the community.
Ashley: I’m proud of all of our students. How hard they work to make their college dreams come true. I’m also proud of how we’ve become recognized as issue experts on college access and success in California. That’s especially rewarding for me having been here from the start of Project GRAD, seeing how far we’ve come as an organization.
Q: Can you each share something you appreciate about the other?
Ashley: I appreciate how Selam helps me no matter what. She is always willing to drop anything to help. All these years working side by side, we can always come to each other and say, “ I need your brain on this or that.” I always learn from her vast knowledge and feel better after seeing Selam.
Selam: I recently went to a conference where one session was about how the Development and Finance team need to work together. But for us, I thought, “We already work so well together!” I didn’t relate to the stereotype of friction between Development and Finance. Part of the success of Project GRAD is that we’re all on the same team. With close relationships like with me and Ash, we always pitch in with whatever anybody needs.
Q: Where do you see Project GRAD Los Angeles 10 years from now?
Selam: Expanding into even more schools. I’d like to see us double the number of schools and kids.
Ashley: Our scholarship dollars are needed more then ever. I’d like to see an endowment for the scholarship fund so that every single hard-working student we work with who earns a spot in college can get the financial resources they need to pursue higher education. I’m also looking forward to seeing the next generation of Project GRAD leaders emerge with more former Scholars taking leadership roles within the organization.