San Marcos,
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Sociology Student Helping Others Through Internship

By Tim Meehan

On the first day of her internship at the Sisu Academy, Cal State San Marcos sociology junior Kara Nazaroff noticed something on her tour of the Scripps Ranch facility that caused her to pause and immediately relate to her surroundings.

Hanging on the walls were drawings and timelines that told the stories of the residents of the academy, a boarding house for high school-age girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. In those stories were descriptions of the many challenges, significant events and future goals.

“It was so beautiful to me to see the struggles these students had come out of and read their future goals and see the pathway that they were taking to get there,” Nazaroff said. “It was truly inspiring.”

What struck Nazaroff was the parallel to her own upbringing. From that day forward, she had no doubts this is where she was supposed to be.

“The students at Sisu are such a great group of young ones,” Nazaroff said. “So bright and full of life, caring and smart. Each one brings something different to the table, and they have really opened my eyes and my heart.”

The name Sisu comes from the Finnish concept for stoic determination, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness.

Nazaroff’s resilient path to CSUSM is one of struggle, meandering trails and, ultimately, service to others. Growing up in Northern California, school wasn’t a priority for her. Following high school graduation in 2001, she attended a local community college, but “quickly lost interest.”

She then joined the workforce, and in 2015, gave birth to her first child. While many in her shoes would have drifted even further from college, it instead motivated her to return. She moved south, attended Palomar College and then transferred to CSUSM.

“Growing up, I didn’t have anyone that I looked up to or viewed as a positive role model,” said Nazaroff, who is a single mom. “I have overcome tough challenges in my life, and I wanted the students of Sisu to know they are not alone. I want to serve as a positive role model for these students and be someone they can reach out to in need.”

Sisu Academy is a tuition-free all-girls school serving young San Diego County women in need. Students can choose to live on campus or to attend the day program inside a 5,200-square-foot home in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood.

Launched in 2019, it provides an all-encompassing environment that includes support services, healthy food, farming curriculum, project-based learning, career training education, social-emotional learning, life skills development, service-learning, STEAM education and counseling.

Nazaroff was introduced to Sisu Academy by professor Kevin Kilpatrick in his sociology 360 course. Kilpatrick introduced the importance of serving one’s community in the first week of class, and Nazaroff was intrigued. That intrigue turned to commitment when she spoke to Sisu Academy Director Becky LeBret.

She was immediately impressed with the academy’s focus on entrepreneurship as an agent of change.

“Students that come out of hardships or have had to struggle more in life possess the characteristics of grit, determination and willpower,” Nazaroff said. “These characteristics are the same in entrepreneurs. Sisu’s goal is to make entrepreneurs out of their students. Each student is given the chance to build their own company which in turn will help to build a self-sustainable model for the school so they do not have to rely on donations or grants to keep the school running.”

One of the tasks Nazaroff is in charge of is implementing a cellphone safety plan for each student. She researches and compiles data regarding safe cellphone use and teaches the students about why responsible cellphone usage is important to their security and health.

Online bullying, proper postings, appropriately sharing your location and helping your peers have been some of the key areas of focus.

“Teaching students the need for balance and helping them set smart goals regarding their cellphone usage has been a challenge,” said Nazaroff, who is mentored by professor Kathy Shellhammer as part of the Faculty Mentor Program at CSUSM. “Much like students at CSUSM, we are all connected to our phones. These devices can take us away from our study time, focus and goals. They also can provide us with comic relief and help us find the answer to a question we are unsure of. I understand balance is needed but getting that across to teenagers has been a challenge. They are so connected and don’t see cellphones as much of a distraction.”

Another unexpected challenge has been the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the academy to close and thus put her internship on hold.

“Staying positive and laughing as much as possible through this difficult time is what is helping me,” Nazaroff said. “Also knowing that this is just another challenge in my life that I will overcome and come out stronger to reach my goals. We got this!”

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