A Better Chance program celebrates 51 years of improving lives.
Authenticity, the quality of being real and true, serves as the guiding principle in Chiasokam (Asoka) Mba’s life. The 17-year-old senior at Edina High School (EHS) firmly believes in the power of authenticity over mere appearances.
“I prefer authenticity over just looking good,” Asoka says. “If you can’t talk about something in a passionate way, people are going to see right through you. Everything I do for school is because I want to, not because someone told me to [or] not because I feel like I have to.”
Asoka’s passion and dedication have driven her through nine Advanced Placement (AP) classes, including challenging subjects like chemistry, statistics and human anatomy. Originally from Miramar, Florida, a suburb of Miami, Asoka’s journey brought her to Edina to be a part of the A Better Chance (ABC) program. The program is a network of more than 250 chapters nationwide, dedicated to providing outstanding students of color with the opportunity to study in a college preparatory environment.
Edina ABC is one of a handful of community-school programs. It has its own house on a quiet street in the city and can accommodate up to seven students per year. The selection process is rigorous, with students applying nationally and then being interviewed and selected for the Edina location by local volunteers.
“Asoka is so impressive. She is a leader through action,” Betsy Kumagai, executive director of Edina ABC, says. “She puts in all her effort, and she exceeds expectations. She holds other people to the same standard. If they’re not acting authentically and working hard, I think it gets under her skin a little bit.”
Asoka’s leadership extends beyond academics. She is an active member of the student council, serving on the parade committee and emceeing the homecoming coronation this academic year. She is also part of various clubs, including Women in STEM and World Quest, which explores international issues. Additionally, Asoka plays tennis and during her sophomore year, she was interested in wrestling but noticed the sport was dominated by men. Unfettered, she approached her coach and organized a girls-only open mat, attracting a small but enthusiastic group of female wrestlers.
That initiative and confidence mirror that of Asoka’s older sister, Adaolisa, who was also a part of ABC and graduated in 2023. She is now studying at Harvard University. Asoka’s goal is to major in biology or chemistry and eventually go to dental school.
Kumagai acknowledges the commitment of Asoka’s parents to ensure her success. “Asoka’s parents are so focused on making sure she has every opportunity to become super successful,” she says. “They’re willing to send their children away to make sure that they have opportunities they may not have at their local high school.”
Edina ABC’s success is not solely due to the students, but also the volunteers, who drive the program. Volunteers from the community offer their time to drive students, tutor them and contribute items to the house’s wishlist. Host families play a crucial role, with students matched with two families, who provide emotional support and guidance. Loretta Smith, the resident director, ensures the students’ daily needs are met and fosters a sense of family within the program.
“Loretta is integral to the success of this program. She takes care of everyone around her and treats everyone with respect and holds people to very high standards,” Kumagai says.
“With support and involvement, these kids and any kid will grow to be amazing adults. One drop of your presence, your positivity, your input into their life, it’s a ripple effect that spreads across the ocean of a lifetime.”—Loretta Smith, Edina ABC resident director
In honor of ABC’s 51st anniversary, we caught up with two graduates of the program to learn about their experiences and where they are today.
Nathalie Rivas, New York City—EHS Class of 2011, Wellesley College Class of 2015, Fulbright Scholar
Rivas credits the ABC program for shaping her into the person she is today. She says it enhanced her public speaking skills, fostered a sense of volunteerism, nurtured her independence and prepared her academically. Most importantly, it helped her identify what she wanted to do in her life.
“I participated in various community service initiatives organized by the ABC program,” Rivas says. “This commitment to volunteerism has stayed with me and most likely has influenced my career choice to become a doctor.”
EHS prepared her academically by exposing her to AP courses, and ABC provided tutors several evenings a week. “I learned valuable and effective study habits, as well as how to ask for help. Most importantly, being away from home and living in a new environment with several other students exposed me to a level of self-reliance and personal responsibility that I had not experienced before,” she says. “This newfound independence taught me essential life skills, such as time management, problem solving and being a team player. It allowed me to grow into a more self-assured and self-sufficient individual, putting me way ahead of my peers when I started college.”
After graduating from Wellesley College, Rivas participated in astrobiology research in Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar. After completing her research, she moved back to New York City, where she became a paramedic.
“My four-year experience in [emergency medical services] reinforced my interest in medicine and compelled me to pursue admission to medical school,” she says. She is a third year medical student at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York.
Through it all, she has remained close to her host families. “My host families served as strong emotional support systems away from home,” she says. “They quickly became like second families, offering comfort and guidance when I was homesick or had personal challenges. They would take me to museums, sporting events, cultural events; I would even tag along for family events. But what I remember most about Sundays with my host families is the simple things like getting to tag along to run errands, helping to set up for dinner or drinking tea and reading our books.”
She encourages more people to volunteer. “The heart and soul of our program is a community of individuals who generously dedicate their time, resources and expertise to support us as young students,” she says. “It is such a special program, and we are always looking for people to join us in our mission, whether as a volunteer or a supporter/advocate.”
Arleth Ulloa, Orange County, California—EHS Class of 2019, Chapman University Class of 2023
Like Rivas, Ulloa says the ABC program helped her find her career path.
“I was very lucky to have had the high school experience and opportunity that I did,” Ulloa says. “I never had to complain about lack of resources or support. However, that opened my eyes to a lot of educational inequities that exist in my communities back home.”
After graduating from Chapman University, Ulloa works for Girls Inc., a nonprofit national organization that empowers young girls and women through afterschool programs and workshops.
“I work with mostly middle schoolers and serve alongside our advocacy committee,” she says. “Next year, I hope to be enrolled in graduate school, working toward a masters in school counseling.”
Ulloa also stays in touch with her host families. “I can’t even begin to put into words how much my two host families mean to me and how much love they poured into me as I was 1,500 miles away from my home,” she says. “They all kept me grounded and reminded me that I am just as capable as anyone else to complete the program and graduate from EHS.”
For more information about Edina ABC, how to volunteer or sign up as a host family, visit edinaabc.org.