Gaby Perez Sanchez knew she didn’t want to go far from home to go to college, while Dana Alcala had no qualms about moving nearly 1,200 miles to continue her education.
Both found a home, not only at the College of Saint Benedict but also with the Intercultural Leadership Education and Development Fellowship Program and as Summer Leadership Fellows.
Perez Sanchez, a junior psychology major, is from Cold Spring, Minnesota, a drive of less than 15 minutes from campus. Alcala, a senior communication major, is from Riverton, Utah, a southern suburb of Salt Lake City. While Intercultural LEAD, a scholarship program for high-achieving first-generation students, has made a big difference in their education, their internships this past summer might go a long way toward shaping their professional careers.
Perez Sanchez was an intern with Anna Marie’s Alliance, a women’s domestic violence shelter nearby in St. Cloud. Alcala, meanwhile, served as an intern with two organizations – Unite Cloud, a St. Cloud social justice non-profit organization, and Fe Y Justicia/Navigate MN, an immigrant advocacy organization in the St. Cloud suburb of Waite Park. Both students were impacted by the experience and made $7,000 for their time, but they got a chance to make an impact on local communities, too.
“I’d seen flyers promoting Anna Marie’s Alliance through events – like how the (Sister Nancy Hynes) Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL) would create and donate blankets,” Perez Sanchez said. “I was intrigued to learn more.”
She applied to be a Summer Leadership Fellow and got the opportunity to work with Anna Marie’s through the Fleischhacker Center for Ethical Leadership in Action. It turned out to be more intense than her previous summer jobs with the Saint Ben’s Office for Institutional Advancement and the Multicultural Center that serves CSB and Saint John’s University.
“As a woman, and someone who goes to a women’s college, I think it’s important to help other women who might not have the opportunities I do,” Perez Sanchez said. “I want to uplift them. It doesn’t have to be anything specific beyond letting them know that people really do care.”
Alcala, who like Perez Sanchez has parents who migrated from Mexico to the United States, initially made contact with Natalie Ringsmuth, executive director of Unite Cloud – which considers Fe Y Justicia an affiliate organization.
“After we had talked for the first time, she said, ‘I think you would be great for this,’” Alcala said. “There’s a need – especially in Hispanic communities, which I feel a calling to – for people to work in social justice. It’s really captivated my interest and I’d be interested in starting my own nonprofit organization someday.”
Alcala will face the next crossroads in her career after graduation next spring. Perez Sanchez has another year beyond that before charting her next move. But both gained valuable support and experience as Summer Leadership Fellows.
Working with (and gaining inspiration from) women
Alcala didn’t blindly come to Saint Ben’s. She has two older sisters, Jerly ’16 and Jocelyn ’17, who paved the way at CSB. Their brother, Bryan ’20, graduated from Saint John’s. Their youngest sister, Jade, is currently in her first year at CSB and also is an Intercural LEAD scholar.
“Growing up, I saw them have a good experience here, and Jerly was also a Summer Leadership Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, she went to France, she studied abroad and was an eScholar – she did just about everything you could imagine,” Dana said. “She was an overachiever and set some high standards and carved a path for all of us to follow.”
Dana is well on her way. In 2022, she was a Marie and Robert Jackson Fellow, living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and working in Hispanic ministry with Jocelyn, who had just become associate director of youth and young-adult ministry with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. This past summer, Dana further burnished her resume with Fe Y Justicia, a faith-based, Latinx-led organization that strives to bring justice and provide kindness and compassion to Central Minnesota. One of her duties was to facilitate communication with the Mexican consulate on matters such as passport renewals, visa applications, or guidance on legal matters for individuals who need such assistance.
“These might be people who need IDs or passports so that, if they want to go back to their country, they can legally do so,” Dana said. “A lot of them don’t have identification papers, so they need a way to prove who they are.”
In Minnesota, a new law – Driver’s License for All – goes into effect Oct. 1. Dana served as a liaison with Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services so their representatives could communicate the correct information about how to apply.
“I translated for those who couldn’t speak English,” Dana said. “I also helped with our free health clinics that are associated with CentraCare.”
And, with Unite Cloud, she wrote blogs and helped with community events. She even attended World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal.
“I worked with all women this summer, which was an uplifting experience,” Dana said. “I don’t even know how to explain the empowerment that gave me. They were amazing and I’m so much more confident now than I was. I want to try to do some of the things they are doing and have the same sort of impact.”
Gaby Perez Sanchez '25 worked in human resources for Anna Marie's Alliance and may have found her future calling.
Finding a deeper meaning and potentially a future calling
College isn’t the only path to success, but Saint Ben’s was definitely in the plan for Perez Sanchez. She says she feels close to her family and has two brothers, a year older and younger, neither of whom has chosen to pursue a four-year degree.
“I always wanted to go to college – not just for me but so my parents would be proud,” Gaby said. “They wanted to give us the best opportunities they could. A lot of my friends from high school didn’t go to college either. They just started working. That’s all right if that’s what you want. But I wanted to extend my education and become someone who could really pursue something I will enjoy. I want something deeper out of life.”
She found that at Anna Marie’s, where many of her internship duties were in human resources.
“I did a lot of interviews,” Gaby said. “At first, I was very nervous because I am an introvert. But I found out that I love asking questions. I would review resumes and, because the organization is so small and we needed help in a lot of areas, I was given the opportunity to explore different departments, too. I got into some advocacy work and prevention education. I worked in the shelter and, because I speak Spanish, I was asked to interpret for some of the residents. It felt good. Once I was asked to interpret for a therapy session, and that was probably the hardest thing I had to do because, emotionally, the resident was telling their story and they came across to me as someone who is really strong. For all the things they went through, there was a realization in me that made me appreciate what I have. That’s something I wish everyone could experience. But it also showed me I don’t want to be a therapist.
“I really enjoyed the HR experience and that might be something I look to in the future,” Gaby added. “It doesn’t seem like you’re as involved in the mission, but we really are because we’re hiring the people who are passionate and have the skills to help our clients. We want people to have a positive mentality, to be able to give a warm welcome to those we want to help. I liked working in a small organization and I can see myself in a nonprofit setting like that.”
Perez Sanchez, who is minoring in global business leadership, succeeded so well her experience led to additional continuing employment at Anna Marie’s as a part-time HR generalist. In addition to that, she’s also a student manager at the CSB and SJU Multicultural Center.
“When you think about internships, some people focus on big industries or companies like Amazon and Google, and they might pay well but I think when you explore something smaller you learn more,” Gaby said. “You experience different things, and you have a better chance of finding what might be your best fit. And that’s something you’re probably going to enjoy more.”
Alcala, who is minoring in sociology and political science, would agree. Right now, she’s the social justice coordinator for IWL, considering a master’s degree and perhaps even a doctorate. She’s interested in crisis communications and public service, but also could pursue a career in post-secondary education. She would advise anyone coming up behind her to investigate the Summer Leadership Fellows program.
“I think there are so many opportunities on this campus that we don’t always see are available to us because maybe we feel a bit of imposter syndrome,” Dana said. “That’s something I’ve definitely had to deal with. But once you do something, you realize you’re capable of having an impact. I’ve had some great mentors who have pushed me, so I recommend finding someone who is willing to help guide you. That might be a faculty member, but it could even be an older student who can tell you what’s possible. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had someone showing me some options and believing I had what it takes.”