Alumni Make the Smart Start Program Trip a Sagehen Success

Pomona Smart Start Fellows at Google with big, colorful Google logo behind the group

Pomona College Smart Start Program Fellows visiting Google. Site visit hosted by Phuong Nguyen '22.

In January, the Career Development Office’s (CDO) Smart Start Career Fellows Program partnered with several Bay Area alumni who helped to arrange an experiential learning trip for 20 sophomores who self-identify as first-generation college and/or low-income students. 

The Smart Start Program was launched by the CDO in 2017 with startup funding from Trustee John Gingrich ’91 P’24 ’27 and Accenture and is now fully funded through alumni and family donations. A three-month program that aims to guide fellows through career development exercises and exploration, Smart Start culminates each year with a three-day visit to a major West Coast U.S. city. While there, students connect with alumni to learn about local industries and post-Pomona career paths, as well as work on their networking skills.

Over the course of three days, this year’s cohort of Smart Start Fellows visited alumni at their workplaces for presentations and tours. Site visits included Accenture, Google, Holland & Knight and the Museum of the African Diaspora. At the invitation of site hosts Jacob Barrera ’14, Gingrich, Nia McAllister ’17 and Phuong Nguyen ’22, fellows were provided the unique opportunity to learn through insider perspectives in the areas of law, consulting, tech and the arts. 

“The opportunity to visit renowned companies’ offices gave us a distinctive insight into what our lives might be like after graduation if we pursued a career in one of the many industries we saw,” said Smart Start Fellow Sebastian Toole ’26. “Meeting Pomona alumni who have excelled in their fields was highly encouraging. Being able to network with various high-level executives and hear about their career paths offered a holistic perspective as to how Pomona can prepare you for a successful career.”
Students enjoyed some Sagehen fun and networked with alumni at the Bay Area Winter Break Gathering, hosted by the Pomona Regional Alumni Chapter, and then joined a dozen alumni the following evening at a special dinner, hosted by Pomona College Trustee Matthew Estes ’88, to continue career conversations. “It was really wonderful getting to know alumni on this trip,” said Fellow Claudio Castillo ’26. “The program accelerated the growth we needed to have before major exploration and our internship search as second-semester sophomores.”

Past Alumni Association Board President Jordan Pedraza ’09, who is currently vice president, global support, at Handshake, was among those who joined the students for dinner and felt motivated by the opportunity to give back and help students. Recalling her own experience with job searching after graduating, Pedraza said, “Alumni helped me to get to where I am, so I want to pay it forward. Meeting current students is also a way to stay connected to Pomona.” 

Femke Freiberg ’07, program director, western water, at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, attended the dinner and found her time with the students and their eagerness to learn about different career paths and grow their professional experience so early in their college years inspirational. “I benefited from informational interviews and mentorship time and again throughout my college years and beyond. Every opportunity to return the favor and pay it forward feels worthwhile.”

For both Pedraza and Freiberg, engaging with the Smart Start students also offers the chance to learn about student life on campus and compare notes. “It’s fun to trade stories about our similar and different experiences,” said Pedraza. Freiberg shared that she “loved hearing about what's going on at Pomona these days and swapping stories about campus life.” 

And would they participate again? Absolutely. Pedraza found it meaningful to share her story and advice among fellow alumni who were doing the same, aiming to “empower students to follow their passions while at Pomona.” Freiberg, who participated for the second time this year, said, “The program is a bright spot in a challenging time for many.” 

Added Pedraza, “We have so much wisdom and support to offer, and we should always flock together!”

Are you a Pomona College alumnus/a who would like to get involved with the Smart Start Career Fellows Program trip? Contact the Career Development Office to learn more.