Phyllis Boyajian talks about math, college prep, and helping someone realize her potential when the subject of Byaney Flores, a senior at John Muir High School, comes up. But she also mentions baking Christmas bread and cookies together, along with how their relationship never felt like typical teacher-and-student fare.
"I remember her asking me one time, 'I have a friend who's having trouble with math. Can you help her?'," said Boyajian, a former high school teacher who lives in Altadena and teaches math at Pasadena City College. "And I did. I sat down with the two of them. That's a special memory for me -- it showed she trusted me enough."
Their relationship started in 2008, when Byaney was a freshman and preparing to enter the Footsteps To College mentoring program offered by College Access Plan, a Pasadena-based nonprofit that aims to prepare at-risk students for the trials of college.
John Muir High School functions as the program's "home base," where students are recruited, then meet with prospective adult mentors. If the mentor and student hit it off, they are then paired together until graduation. There are currently 10 seniors in the mentoring program, and 15 freshmen are being recruited to take part.
Boyajian volunteered for the program in late 2007 after taking a break from her 20-year career as a math teacher. Byaney eventually found her "California grandma," someone she could confide in who was unlike anyone else.
"I had a lot of issues," she said through emerging tears and a trembling voice. Byaney is applying to Stanford, University of La Verne and Pomona College. "It's … nice to have someone to talk to, who'd take that in."
There's no set criteria for who gets recruited, such as grades or test score average, said Monique Hyman, College Access Plan's executive director and co-founder. Instead, they go by feedback from teachers and the various interests of students who apply (and even those who don't).
"We want to help kids who have that kind of spark," she said. "Kids who might slip through the cracks."
Byaney originally thought her spark was going to be in law. Then it was possibly psychology. Now, she said, she's thinking about other fields.
"First I hated math," she said. "Now it's something I want to do … I want to be a chemistry teacher or a math teacher."
When Hyman thinks she's found someone, she goes after them. Monica Gonzalez, another John Muir senior in the mentoring program, said she encountered Hyman while she was getting recognized with an award for her GPA.
"She was staring at me the whole time," Monica said with a smile. "I could tell she was totally waiting for the right moment to talk, and then she was like, 'Hi!'"
Monica calls her Altadena mentor, Caroline McManus, her "other mom," after being initially very picky about finding the right mentor.
"I wanted to find someone I could really be open with," she said. "And when I saw her, that first time, she just had this smile. I was like, "OK, this is the one.'"
In addition to college prep, mentors and students take part in field trips to college campuses as well as a variety of workshops designed around building bonds and focusing on life aspects such as leadership. Boyajian remembers a large group train trip to Chinatown.
"It was a great way to be together without being alone together," she said. "It was interested to hear the kids talking … some had never been on the train before."
Monica remembered a retreat to Alpine Meadows in the San Bernardino Mountains, where she said she and her fellow students "broke out of their shells."
"It's like a family," said Monica, who's applying to Cal Poly Pomona and Azusa Pacific University. "We've all grown up together, and there's a feeling of, "Oh my God, we made it!'"
With that realization comes the spectre of college life for Byaney, Monica and either other students. Monica, who wants to get into business management, said she wants to stay close to her family, and that the farthest she's probably going to get is Pomona. Byaney's not worried about the college experience wherever she goes.
"To me, it'll be the same people I go to school with, nothing new," she said. "I'm still going to be me."
That's reinforces what Boyajian said she has known about Byaney for the past few years.
"She has a strong internal feeling of who she is," she said. "She's not going to be led into anything. But if she ever gets homesick, I'll come get her."