SANTA ANA, Calif. — Planting seeds and watching them grow is a favorite pastime for Dana Uzzo.

Now, she is doing the same with a student she’s only met online. 

What You Need To Know

  • 300 students from Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Garden Grove are pairing up with mentors through an e-mentorship program

  • Dana Uzzo is mentoring 17-year-old Alexies Benitez from Santa Ana

  • The mentor and mentee meet on Zoom at least once a week

  • Alexies applied to several prestigious colleges like Stanford University

“I just really wanted to be there for her and be her cheerleader and help her where I could,” said Uzzo, who is a working professional.

Since the pandemic, Uzzo has been working from home managing commercial real estate loans. One day, an opportunity came into her inbox.

“When I got the email, I was like, 'This is perfect.' It’s a perfect opportunity to do that,” said Uzzo.

She was invited to be a mentor in Orange County United Way’s “United for Student Success” campaign. Three hundred high school seniors from neighborhoods that are hardest hit by COVID-19 are paired with mentors who can help them graduate towards a path to college. Seventeen-year-old Alexies Benitez is Uzzo’s mentee.

“At our first meeting, I think I was very shy,” said Alexies, a senior at Círculos High School in Santa Ana.

The mentor and mentee meet on Zoom once a week, but also talk off camera several times a week. Alexies came to the U.S. when she was 11 years old and is going to be the first in her family to go to college.

“I know that if my mom would’ve had the opportunity to go to college, she would’ve taken it,” said Alexies.

The high school senior says she turns to Uzzo to help her navigate the college application process because she’s experienced it before while her mom wasn’t given the chance back in her home country of Guatamala.

“I knew they were confused by the things I was doing and wondering why I was doing so much homework. There were some things, as much as they wanted to understand, it was difficult because they haven’t experienced it before,” said Alexies. 

Uzzo says she’s never had an official mentor in her life, but there have been people who inspired her to reach higher. Uzzo wants to do that for Alexies.

“I really love to see women going to college and getting that experience and being that person in their family to motivate the rest of the family go to get that degree,” said Uzzo.

Alexies has gotten several college acceptance letters so far, but she’s waiting to hear back from Stanford University, her dream school, in a few weeks. For Uzzo, she hopes to continue to nurture this relationship even after it sprouts.

OC United Way is fundraising to help the students expected to graduate this year through some of the hurdles brought on by COVID-19. Click here to donate.