Living up to leadership potential at Mount Holyoke

“Having close relationships with professors is something that I didn’t know was going to happen. Just knowing an adult who knows the way around academia.”

One of the reasons Sara Sarmiento was chosen to be a Mount Holyoke student was because of her leadership potential. She lived up to that expectation the moment she got to campus. 

Sarmiento came to Mount Holyoke by way of the Posse Foundation, which matches high school students with leadership abilities living in under-resourced communities with colleges and universities.  

As a native Spanish speaker applying to the College, she was excited about the Spanish Language Floor Living-Learning Community. But she was looking for something a little different. 

“The Spanish floor is such an important piece of Mount Holyoke and it’s great if you want to learn Spanish,” she says. “What I was looking for was a space that I could go to and feel like home, feel the empowering sense of what it is to be with people who remind you of home. Somewhere where there’s loud music and certain types of food and people give you hugs even though you just met.” 

Sarmiento turned her vision into a proposal. The Office of Residential Life approved the Mi Gente LLC, which opened Sarmiento’s sophomore year, with her as the community advisor. 

“That’s my legacy,” she says. “It went from being an idea on day one to it actually occurring as a space. I was blessed to take on the challenge of forging intentional community for Latinx students on campus like myself. That’s how I feel about it and I love it.”  

Mi Gente was so successful in its first year that it was given the MoZone Community Builders Award and Sarmiento was named Community Advisor of the Year at the Student Leadership and Service Awards annual ceremony.  

What surprised Sarmiento about Mount Holyoke was the accessibility of her professors. 

“Having close relationships with professors is something that I didn’t know was going to happen,” she says. “I knew it was advertised in the Mount Holyoke brochures, but I had never had that in high school. Just the dynamic of having someone who is an adult and knows the way around academia.” 

Like many Posse students, the one she was closest to was her Posse mentor, James Harold, the chair of the philosophy department. But when Sarmiento graduated in December, she says, she sent thank yous to half a dozen other professors as well. 

“’Thank you so much for teaching me this and that concept that I’m going to take forever.’ ’Thank you for making your classroom such a welcoming space.’ ’Thank you for teaching me about this theorist who I still think about every day,’” she says. “These are people that I can keep updating about my life as I go along and they’ll be happy to hear about it and to cheer me on.” 

These professors include Serin Houston in geography, Brian Nakayama in international relations, and Vanessa Rosa, Class of 1929 Dr. Virginia Apgar Assistant Professor of Latina/o Studies. And Sarmiento’s gratitude also goes to staff, including Yaldira Felix Castro, the pre-law advisor in the Career Development Center, and Ryan Lewis, the national fellowships advisor. 

“If I go back to education, which I’m hoping to,” she says, “the small-class environment and that opportunity for closeness with professors is one of the things that I’m taking with me as must-haves.”

For now her education will continue with law school, an interest that was first sparked in discussions with Posse students who were juniors when she was a first-year student.

She got guidance and resources, including Lynk funding, from the Career Development Center to explore the field. Among her numerous internships was a summer at Harvard Law School attending TRIALS, the Training and Recruitment Initiative for Admission to Leading Law Schools. 

“From then on I knew I wanted to study law to help immigrants like myself secure legal rights and access,” Sarmiento says. “I want to pursue a career in the law and an education in the law, to help communities from the basis of law.”

Living-Learning Communities: An important aspect of residential life

Mount Holyoke began offering Living-Learning Communities, known as LLCs, in 2014 with language-learning floors like the Spanish floor Sara Sarmiento was on as a first-year student. 

The LLC program is designed to be flexible and students are invited to propose themes. Sarmiento was inspired to propose a new LLC, one that focused on Latinx students, because she knew three new LLCs had opened that fall, two of which were affinity-based. 

“By the time that I proposed Mi Gente, I knew that Mount Holyoke would be open to my idea,” Sarmiento says. “There was just such a need for it. I felt it in my bones, and I talked about it with some friends and peers and classmates and other Posse people. Everyone was like, we think that too. This was my opportunity to say I identify with this community.” 

Those three new LLCs were Shirley Chisolm, designed to support and celebrate students who are of African descent or wish to foster connections between different cultures within the diaspora. It was named after the first Black woman to seek the nomination of a major party for the presidency and the first woman to pursue the Democratic ticket — and a former Mount Holyoke professor

Mosaic is for self-identifying students of color or those with a commitment and investment in diversity and inclusion. The Arts LLC is for students with interests in everything from architecture to theater.  

In all the residence halls, students serve as senior community advisor and community advisor. The LLCs also have a liaison who is either a faculty or staff member or a department sponsor who helps the community with programming. All LLCs are open to the entire student body at Mount Holyoke. Staff in the Office of Residential Life work with students who want to join these communities but have accessibility concerns.