Anjulie Ponce: Mentoring for College, Career, and Community Readiness

Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Erin Schreyer.

In 2014, Anjulie Ponce was introduced to the world of mentoring. It was that year her husband, JJ, began volunteering with a new program called Leadership Forward, and through that experience, Anjulie’s trajectory was forever changed. Since 2018 Anjulie has served as executive director at Leadership Forward, connecting local professionals with Dallas ISD high school students through one-on-one mentoring. Through her creative thinking and dedication to building mentoring relationships that last long past high school graduation, Leadership Forward is seeing success, even in a year defined by pandemic.


Anjulie was born in Canada to Indian parents who had met in England. At the age of ten her family moved to the United States in search of a city that would provide high quality education and job opportunities. “They were looking for the best school districts and found Plano,” says Anjulie. Plano lived up to their expectations. Anjulie excelled as a student and took up dance–and dance was where she first learned about the joy of volunteering, by helping instruct younger dance classes. In high school she signed up as a tutor at a local elementary school and found she was drawn to clubs and service projects that involved working with kids. Anjulie had found her passion.

Earning degrees in Economics, International Studies, and Spanish at SMU, then continuing to Baylor Law School, Anjulie began realizing that her own education journey was significantly different than some of her peers. “There was never any doubt that I would go to college. It was an expectation with my family. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I got involved in other volunteer groups and met new people, and realized that college was not accessible for everyone,” Anjulie says. “I didn’t realize how many institutional inequalities were present. I have an immigrant’s and minority’s story, but it looks very different than that of Black and Latino students. For example, every student in Dallas ISD can take the SAT and ACT for free, but they do not have the preparation to go along with it, putting them at a distinct disadvantage for being accepted into college. ”

Today Leadership Forward is focused on college, career, and community readiness. Offering students support through mentoring helps them explore their interests and make a plan to translate those interests into a career path. With so much on the line, Anjulie’s team is focused on creating a healthy mentor match. “When we recruit mentors, we are drawing from a diverse pipeline, whether that is someone’s racial background, career backgrounds, or their upbringing,” explains Anjulie. “Mentors and students both fill out applications, but then we interview each mentor in order to get to know them, and then check references. We look for some commonality to connect the student and their mentor. It could be interest, hobbies, or also some intangible component. The student may share something in their application about wanting to be more comfortable speaking in public and we know a mentor who can help pull them out of their shell.”


Over the past six years, Leadership Forward has seen steady growth, due in part to the strategic partnerships they have incorporated from the beginning. The Leadership Forward team began their work hand-in-hand with Dallas ISD and the school leadership at W.H. Adamson High School and then Sunset High School. “Having a relationship with the school is really important, not only to understand the students, but also its families and culture and environment.” This past school year, Leadership Forward had 42 active mentors between the two schools, but Anjulie has a goal of 30–50 students per school.

Another formative partnership for Leadership Forward is its connection to Education Opens Doors. “Back in 2014 our founders had the great insight to connect with Jayda Batchelder. The Education Opens Doors guidebook is the base of our curriculum and has been vital to our success,” Anjulie says. “It provides everything you want to know about high school and college for our mentors and students from a college and career readiness aspect, as well as exploring who you want to be as a person.” Mentors and students also bring life topics into their mentoring conversations, including racial justice. To build on those conversations, Anjulie is leaning on the expertise at Brave/R Academy at Leadership ISD, where her husband serves on the board of directors. “It’s important for our students to learn the language around race, have an understanding about obstacles, and name all of it. We are here to empower students to have those discussions,” says Anjulie.


Ongoing conversations are at the heart of Leadership Forward’s work, with an eye on how mentoring relationships can continue to grow as students begin their higher education and career. Anjulie has set a goal of life-long mentorships, knowing the deep value from mentors who have encouraged her own success. The Leadership Forward program facilitating this vision is called Next Gen Initiative. “In the midst of COVID-19 we had 11 seniors graduate. Eight are in college and one is pursuing a technical certificate, and they are all first-generation college students,” explains Anjulie. “They won’t have the same in-person orientations at their new schools. Those important connections aren’t there and, as first generation college students, they are high risk for not finishing college. We had to do something to continue supporting those students, so we are helping facilitate our mentors to stay connected to their students.” The Next Gen Initiative includes direct support to students from Anjulie—checking to make sure they have the resources they need and know about opportunities available to them. It also includes supporting the mentor and encouraging them to stay connected with discussion ideas and reminders. Anjulie is also encouraging an online community between the students, creating a place where they can share their experiences and discuss what is happening in the world around them.

Anjulie has her eyes on the future of full-circle mentoring, where students are able to come back and become mentors themselves. “How great would it be if our students went through the college and career journey, then came back and mentor? We are actively discussing how former Leadership Forward students can become an active part, not only in our program, but also in the community. A lot of the people currently leading the charge in Oak Cliff development don’t look like our students, but our students are ready to be leaders in our city,” says Anjulie.

For the core mentoring program at Leadership Forward, students can sign up in any grade and continue through high school, with most students starting in 10–11th grade and staying with their mentor for two to three years. Mentors and students meet twice a month—typically after school on campus for an hour, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, all the mentoring discussions are now virtual. If you are interested in getting involved as a mentor or supporting the work of Leadership Forward, you can learn more at