Alumni Spotlight: Isela Barrios

By: Ali Meisel, Director of Development

Isela Barrios knew from an early age that she wanted a college education. Born and raised in Guatemala, she came to Los Angeles with her mother and two sisters at 10 years old during a time of violence and political turmoil in their home country. With few options to improve their circumstances, Isela’s mother made the decision to bring her daughters to the U.S. for greater opportunity for education and a better life. They settled in South Los Angeles, where Isela and her sisters enrolled in LAUSD and started ESL classes, and their mother began to work.

Isela recalls growing up with very limited resources. Her mother raised her and her sisters with a single minimum-wage income (all that was available to her as an immigrant with little education), but Isela knew that she could change her future if she worked hard and succeeded academically. She saw education as something she could attain and that would open doors to the future she desired. 

Fast forward to middle school — Isela had an opportunity to apply to and attend a college-prep magnet high school. While the magnet ended up being an academic and social fit for Isela, and provided the classes she needed for college eligibility in California, she soon realized there was much more to getting into college than her school was equipped to help with.

Then, in 10th grade, she met a college advisor from Fulfillment Fund. This advisor began coming to her English classes and teaching about college and the process of applying. As the first in her family to pursue post-secondary education, Isela was thrilled to have Fulfillment Fund’s guidance. She recalls feeling an enormous weight lifted in knowing there was someone to help her reach her goals. When she unexpectedly became pregnant in 12th grade, Fulfillment Fund also supported her in selecting the right college for her to be a successful student and new mother, CSU Los Angeles.

During her second year there, Isela learned she was eligible for a Fulfillment Fund scholarship and an internship opportunity. She applied and was awarded both, and her life was forever transformed. As a business administration major, she interned at a global accounting firm, where she gained invaluable experience in a corporate office environment. She recalls receiving instrumental support and mentorship from a former Fulfillment Fund intern at the same firm and her supervisors, and was offered a full-time position after she graduated. 

After a few years in the accounting world, she realized it wasn’t providing her the professional satisfaction she sought. Once again, she reached out to Fulfillment Fund for guidance about graduate school and how to transition to a more meaningful career. She met with a Fulfillment Fund advisor who helped her identify her interests and strengths, which led her to law school and a career helping underserved communities access otherwise unaffordable legal support.

Today, Isela is a partner at Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP, where she provides legal representation to hospitality workers in a wide range of family-based immigration matters. She also remains actively connected to Fulfillment Fund as an alumna, volunteer leader, and donor. She served on our then Alumni Ambassadors’ Board for two years, volunteered at student events, and is now a member of our Programs Committee.

Isela is also the proud mother of Melanie, who she raised as a single parent. Melanie has not only been a tremendous source of drive and inspiration for Isela, but she is also a remarkable example of the generational impact of Fulfillment Fund’s work. Because of the knowledge and guidance Isela received in our program, she was able to advise Melanie during her own college journey, thus extending the legacy of Fulfillment Fund in her family. Today, Melanie holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, teaches middle school science in Los Angeles, and is poised to carry the example of prioritizing education forward to the coming generations.

Isela’s journey and achievements are truly incredible. We sat with her to learn more about her motivations and inspirational history with our organization.

FF: What has inspired you to stay in touch and involved with Fulfillment Fund since your time as a student?

IB: Ever since I met Fulfillment Fund, it’s been a resource I’ve always been able to go to. They have been there for me during good and bad moments, and I have always felt welcomed. I’ve also been able to have many first experiences in my life because of Fulfillment Fund — like visiting colleges out of state, interning in an office and buying my first suit, and attending the Sun Valley Writers Conference where I had the honor of meeting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Breyer, who was there promoting a book. (He actually sat at our table for one of the lunches, and I remember thinking, “this can’t be happening!”) I have this major trust in the organization, and no matter what, I feel comfortable going to someone at Fulfillment Fund for support. Because they have given me so much, I want to give back in whatever ways I can. I participate, volunteer, and donate whenever possible. I’m super grateful.

FF: Over the years since you were a student, Fulfillment Fund has evolved. What excites you about where the organization is headed next?

IB: I am very impressed with how the organization has dealt with COVID. It was such a hard time for everyone, but especially for public school students. Fulfillment Fund did everything in their power to connect with the students virtually, and they did such a great job ensuring students knew Fulfillment Fund is there for them and they are still part of the program. I was also so impressed with how they transitioned Destination College into a virtual event. It was so well organized, and the workshops and speakers were so engaging and motivating for the students. They were even able to take the event national and reach students from across the country. Now that we are transitioning out of COVID, I think they are doing an amazing job at identifying programmatic areas that work and expanding on them, and moving on from others. For example, I am excited about the new relationship they are building with LA City College. There is so much potential to provide continuity and help the students, who are mostly first-gen like me, with the transition to college.

FF: What advice do you have for others who are considering getting involved with Fulfillment Fund?

IB: I would say that you’re not going to go wrong if you decide to get involved with Fulfillment Fund. No matter what, you’re going to get so much out of it. Whether it’s hearing a story of a student that really moves you and motivates you to do something more with your career or your personal time, or working with a student directly, you’re going to walk away a much better person. Once your eyes are opened to the great work they are doing in our community, you’ll want to talk about them with your peers or any students you know and recommend them. Reach out and see!

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