Born in Bolivia and raised in California, Dayan traveled the challenging road of becoming the first college graduate in her family. She knew she wanted to help young people like herself who had great potential, but often lacked the knowledge of how to go to college. Inspired by her 2007 Brigham Young University Thesis project, she founded Teens ACT, a nonprofit that helps at-risk students go to college.
Will you describe your educational background growing up?
Growing up, my mom taught me to love and value learning. She was always reading and taking our family to museums. I remember her taking us to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant; she wanted us to be familiar with different cultures. My mom would also introduce my sisters and me to many people in our community so that we could be more aware of others and not just be concerned about ourselves. By her example she taught us to be constantly learning. So I was always picking up a new book or researching something, even when I was young. I owe a lot to my mom for helping me be interested in education.
You are the first college graduate in your family. How did you find the motivation?
I just knew it was something I wanted and needed to do. I would hear my friends at school talk about college, and I knew I wanted that for my own life. And it wasn’t just taking classes and getting a degree, but also the social aspect of college life that attracted me to it. My mother’s love for learning was definitely part of my inspiration. But I feel that I am also just a naturally motivated person. I also wanted to be an example for my younger sisters. They are both currently in college and I think I was one of the reasons they were inclined to go.
What is an under-resourced (or at-risk) student, and why were you interested in working with this specific population of students?
An under-resourced student has poor grades and low motivation for school. Most qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their families’ socio-economic status. These kids are the first potential college students in their families. Also, many of these students are Hispanic or of a different ethnic minority.
I feel that many under-resourced students don’t know the options and opportunities available to help them. I myself didn’t know a lot about the U.S. education system, like I didn’t know what an AP (Advanced Placement) test was. I didn’t understand what I needed to do to go to college, as far as money for tuition and applications and that kind of thing. It was only after hours of research and studying on my part that I ended up at BYU. So I wanted to help students who were in the same situation, students who could go to college and make a better life for themselves but needed a little help.
You say you researched for hours. Explain that to me. What was the most important tool you used to help you on your journey?
The Internet. I’m very grateful it. It was just getting big when I was in high school. I think if I had been born 10 years earlier when the Internet wasn’t really around, I wouldn’t have made it to college. I am grateful for technology and the great things it enables us to accomplish.
I was just on a bunch of different college and university websites comparing tuition and requirements and things like that. I also was on the ACT official website to see test-taking strategies and tips. And of course I used the Internet to apply to schools and for scholarships.
Tell me more about the history of Teens ACT.
When I was an undergraduate at BYU, I was in the Honors Program and needed to do an Honors Thesis. I knew that I didn’t want to just write a paper, but that I wanted to do something to actually make a difference. Through working with counselors at Provo High School, I was able to recruit a group of under-resourced students and teach a course about the ACT (a standardized exam required for many American colleges) and College Preparation. Many of my students were on their way to dropping out of high school, but became motivated and changed so that they not only graduated, but also went on to college. Since that time, I have gained support and funding, and we founded Teens ACT as an official nonprofit.
Today, the mission of Teens ACT is to increase the high school graduation rate by empowering under-resourced students to obtain a post-secondary education, thus achieving their greatest potential.
Will you explain a little bit more about this “drop-out crisis” in our high schools today and how Teens ACT is responding to that?
The drop-out crisis is a huge problem in America. Three in every 10 students drop out of high school. They are obviously more likely to be unemployed, but also are more likely to be involved in drug use and other crimes. A student who drops out of high school perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
But the crisis doesn’t just affect dropouts; it really affects all of us. Our taxes pay for things like welfare, and school districts lose funding for every dropout. So the drop-out crisis hurts everyone. Teens ACT is trying to lower the drop-out rate by giving at-risk students a vision beyond high school.
We offer 3 different courses in our program. First is our College Preparation course. We help students understand how college can help them reach their dreams and have a better life. We have guest speakers and college tours to help them get excited and motivated. Later on in the course, we help students with college and scholarship applications, as well as career exploration.
The second course of our program is ACT Prep. Our teachers use innovative techniques and the official test prep guide put out by the makers of the ACT to teach our students math, science, English, and reading comprehension.
Finally, we offer a course for the parents of our students. We equip them with the knowledge, skills, and vision to help them establish a home where education and academics are valued and promoted.
We have so many people helping us. It’s just such a blessing. Being here in Provo, we have access to many BYU faculty and professionals who help us recruit and fundraise, or who are Teens ACT Board members. And there are BYU students who are mentors or teachers to our students. I’m so grateful for all the feedback and advice and resources we have here in Utah. And as we expand and grow and develop more, more people are willing to donate financially to Teens ACT as well. There have been so many people who have been willing to help and support a greater cause. I needed advice about starting and running a nonprofit. And I’ve had the opportunity to speak with executive directors of other organizations, profit and nonprofit, and been able to gain insight into how to better run our own organization. I also love that Teens ACT is beginning to be recognized and accepted as a viable organization. I feel like Heavenly Father is definitely opening doors for Teens ACT to continue so that we can serve more at-risk students.
What have been some of the greatest joys you’ve experienced working with Teens ACT?
Just seeing changes in our students has brought me great joy. For example, we had a student who was a Latter-day Saint, but when we first got him he was on his way to dropping out of high school. He had friends who weren’t good influences on him, and he didn’t seem to be living the standards in “For the Strength of Youth.” Teens ACT helped him realize his potential as a high school student, but also as a child of God. I think the Lord was helping him in all aspects of his life, including in his education. This young man not only graduated from high school, but also has completed some college and is currently serving a full time mission.
It’s amazing to realize the impact that people can make in a child’s life. I loved being part of his journey. I feel like the Lord truly made me an instrument in His hands.
You have a very nurturing attitude with the Teens ACT students. Do you view these students as your own in some ways?
Yes. It’s very interesting because I’m not a mother; I’ve never had children. And even though I’m so young, I’ve learned so many parenting skills through working with these students. I feel the Lord has blessed me with being able to work with youth, youth who are many times difficult to work with because of their background. Many of my students have told me things that they would never tell their parents because they trust me. I’m not sure why they trust me so much, but I hope all of this learning of how to work with youth will help me be a better mother when I have teenagers.
I believe that the Lord has given women special strengths and talents that allow us to be able to help other people. And I love that as women, part of our mission is not just to progress, but serve other people in a mothering role, whether or not we are actual mothers. I think we need to look at the unique gifts we’ve been given and learn how to use them to serve others, because that’s why Heavenly Father gave them to us.
It’s clear that education is key to helping an at-risk student get out of poverty and go to college to have a more meaningful life. In your experience, why is having an education also important spiritually?
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi says that he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of my Father.” Nephi learned the scriptures, languages, the Law of Moses, and many other important skills that were important in the time. Learning is important to God. God is a being of knowledge. He wants us to have knowledge in this world. And I don’t just mean technical knowledge or education, but also a spiritual education.
Knowledge is important because knowledge gives us power leading to progression. And when you stop learning, you stop progressing. That is why we are counseled to read our scriptures everyday: because we are continuously learning and receiving revelation. I know that I am continuously learning secularly as well: I keep researching and studying more about education and nonprofit work and other areas of interest.
Sometimes it seems like people who are formally educated become prideful. What would you say to that?
I would definitely agree. The Book of Mormon talks about that too. I would respond by saying that for one thing, my undergraduate degree is so small compared to some people and the years they have spent earning advanced degrees. So there’s no reason to brag because there will always be someone smarter than you or who has more doctorate degrees than you do. But the point of education is not to glory in oneself, it’s instead to use it to bless the lives of others. Plus, there are many successful people who haven’t gone to college but have still done great things with their life and contributed to their community. So it’s a huge mistake to think you are better than someone because you have a college education. But college is still important because it can open so many doors, especially for an at-risk student. A college degree can help you make better decisions in your life.
How has your education enriched your life personally?
If I hadn’t gone to college, I don’t think I would have been able to serve my community and make a difference, the way I have done. But because of my education, I can contribute and add my little grain of sand. I’ve been able to meet a lot of friends and people who’ve helped me professionally who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
Seeing the ways that having an education has blessed my life has made me want more people to go to college, which is of course the main reason for Teens ACT. It’s similar to the gospel; it has made my life so much better that I want others to enjoy it like I do and share the gospel. That’s how I feel about college.
Speaking of the gospel, I understand that other than helping at-risk youth, missionary work is also very important to you.
Yes! Missionary work is another strong passion of mine. I’m a convert to the church. My family joined when I was 10 after we had moved to California. The missionaries found us through a member referral. That is one reason I feel so strongly that sharing the gospel is everyone’s responsibility, not just the missionaries’.
I served a full time mission in Chicago, but I still feel like a missionary because I still am one! It wasn’t just a year and a half of my life; it’s a continuous thing. And I am continuously seeking missionary opportunities. About every week I’m trying to talk to someone about the gospel that doesn’t know about it or understand yet. I try to find people who either want to listen or people who have not yet been invited to the church, or are less active, people who are not enjoying all the blessings of the gospel.
Through your work, you’ve met and associated with many different professionals in and out of Utah. Have you had the experience of sharing the gospel with any of them?
I’ve met a lot of people who work in different fields: not just education, but also business and law (dealing with the non-profit aspect of Teens ACT). And we’ve been able to talk about our spiritual beliefs. But even if they aren’t members of the church, we’re still able to relate to each other because these individuals are able to express their thoughts about and gratitude towards God. When we have our conversations, we talk about how grateful we are for Heavenly Father’s help in our lives and our professions.
I feel that missionary work is one of the reasons why the Lord wants this organization to succeed. Because great missionary opportunities in and out of the church will come about because of Teens ACT—they already have, and for that I am so grateful.
You have so many projects and jobs going on with Teens ACT and with your other jobs. You often are speaking at conferences and networking. How do you keep it all together?
My faith is what keeps me going. I know that Jesus Christ lives and that he helps me accomplish all of my daily tasks. It is because of Him that I have been able to accomplish little by little my dreams and goals. I know that if my foundation is in Christ everything will be okay, no matter what happens. To build my foundation I make sure I do the simple, basic things first and foremost. I believe in gaining revelation and guidance through prayer. There have been many times when I didn’t know what to do about something, but then I was able to gain clarity and answers because I prayed earnestly and studied the scriptures daily. The temple has always given me great strength to do what is right and to trust in the Lord with all my heart, mind, and strength. Using the atonement in my daily life, partaking of the sacrament and renewing my covenants, and doing the best I can in fulfilling my callings allows me to be ever so grateful for this mortality and gives me greater joy. I try to put the Lord first in everything I do, and I know that He blesses me for that.
At A Glance
Location: Provo, UT
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Founder and Executive Director of Teens ACT, also works with Education:Catch the Dream
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University (BA in Latin American Studies, Minor in Philosophy)
Languages Spoken at Home: Spanish, English
Favorite Hymn: “Because I Have Been Given Much”
On The Web: www.teens-act.org
Interview by Katherine Wilkinson. Photos used with permission.