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The Intellectual Virtues Academy Blog

Who We Are: Makenna Briceno, School Counselor

At IVA High, we view counseling and support for mental health as an essential component of our mission, which is why our small, tuition-free charter high school has one of the best student to counselor ratios in California. We’d like to introduce you to one of our school counselors, Makenna Briceno, who has been at IVA High for 4 years and makes a big impact in the lives of our students. 

Who or what inspired you to become an educator? 

Makenna_HeadshotMy journey to being an educator was unique. I initially went to college to study communications and public relations. I thought I wanted to spend my career days planning large scale events because I enjoyed attending concerts, festivals, and large social functions (as many twenty-something year olds do). After a couple internships, I realized that line of work was missing something for me. 

At the time, I was having a difficult time managing my stress and realized I had some trauma to process. I ended up going to therapy and also realized how fitting it would be for me to explore a career in mental health. I pursued my masters in counseling at California State University, Fullerton.

To earn my licensure hours, I worked at several county contracted mental health centers, mainly focusing on children and teenagers. I felt most fulfilled and impactful when working with teenagers and I met with my teenage clients at their high school campus. I was disheartened by the lack of mental health support on high school campuses and frustrated watching students fall through the cracks. They needed more support than could be given in one hour a week. 

About a year post graduation, I had the opportunity to work at a charter high school (hint: it was IVA) that wanted to help address students who struggled with attendance. They were looking to approach truancy through a mental health perspective, and this was the first of many green flags for me.

I was hired as a support specialist and progressed from guidance counselor to school counselor, to associate school counselor. This was a reflection of my drive to learn more, and IVA administration’s ability to acknowledge their staff’s strengths and create opportunities for them. Working in education, specifically at IVA High, I am able to utilize my education and skills to make change and support those around me in finding their power to create change.

At IVA High, I am also able to address the whole child - I become familiar with the student’s academics, social/emotional well being, their family and friends, and their hopes and dreams. I came to education to support the whole child and I stay because the people around me share a passion to support their students in any way possible

How does IVA High's mission and vision align with your personal and professional values? 

When I first started working at IVA, I never really gave the virtues much thought, but it wasn’t long before I realized how essential these virtues are for our personal growth. Below are some virtues I particularly gravitate towards and align with how I live my life.

Autonomy - As someone who tends to take an idea and run with it, it is special to be at a place that fosters independence. I truly have a voice here and what I say matters and makes an impact.

Tenacity - Throughout my life, I have found that I feel more whole, understand more about myself, when I am able to do hard things. 

Open-mindedness - “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” is a quote I stand firmly by. I think it is essential to keep an open mind to learn other ways of thinking. To be in a place that intentionally fosters open-mindedness is a place I want to be. 

Humility - My least favorite virtue in that “I hate being wrong” (I mean, who doesn’t) but also know how deeply important it is to acknowledge when we made a mistake or have an opportunity for growth. The power of “I am sorry” is crucial in maintaining healthy relationships. 

I work at a place where my voice is encouraged and heard. My voice makes an impact. My voice is used to create space for students to use theirs. That is so powerful.

What do you love most about your role at IVA High?

Wow. So many things. The first thing that comes to mind is creating opportunities for students to feel joy and pride. I get to use my project management and event planning skills to create memorable experiences. How cool is that? And what’s even more rad is that all of those moments are student inspired and driven. One of my first big “non traditional” counseling projects I initiated was to create a common space where students felt comfortable. Our common area was empty - nothing on the walls, no chairs or seating. I installed our communal library, student artwork on shelves, a record player, tables and chairs, a drawing wall, and more. Now I find students gathering there to work on assignments, participate in clubs, or engage in community wide events. What other school would give permission to a staff member to do that? 

Together with students, we planned the first school-wide prom (absolutely amazing if I do say so myself), camping trips to Joshua Tree and Big Sur, snowboarding days to Big Bear, career day, and so many more on and off campus events.

I think a keyword in answering this question is “create.” In my role at IVA, my creativity is fostered and I am motivated to create or improve programs to better assist students to be successful - to feel confident in themselves and their identity, to feel proud of their academic achievements, to know that it is never too late to turn things around, and that there will always be a person on campus (if not many) who care for them and sees them for who they are and what they can be with the right support.

Share a favorite memory of your work at IVA High. 

How do I choose just one!? Some of my favorite memories are definitely ones involving off-campus trips. Last winter, Dustin Schmidt and I organized a trip to Big Bear. We had a group of students who wanted to go snowboarding and skiing, so we made it happen. Some students had never been snowboarding, some who had never been to Big Bear, and some who had never been to the mountains or seen snow. Our local community (both staff and generous people in my neighborhood) donated money, gear and clothing. We spent the day at Big Bear and it snowed so much we almost got stuck on the mountain. We made it back safely with countless stories to share. But watching these students be open-minded to new adventures and tenacious with a new sport was amazing. I was so filled with joy watching them experience life.

That trip really set the tone and confidence for future adventures. Alongside Dustin, we have made senior class camping trip a tradition. In 2022, it was Joshua Tree and this year it was Big Sur. I was especially proud of Big Sur because I wasn’t sure I could make it happen. I had my daughter on New Years Eve of 2022, so I had to decide if I could leave her for four days. Ultimately, I decided that these trips are just too special to skip and my daughter was in good hands. It is truly a gift to witness these students step outside of their comfort zone, be in nature, and just be kids. 

Tell us a bit about you.

I recently had my first child in December (on New Year's Eve!). She is the joy of our lives. Most of my free time is spent taking her on nature walks, on the floor with her toys, and managing her awake windows. My husband and I enjoy traveling (which looks a little different these days), spending time with our close friends and trying new eateries and bakeries. Any time spent outside is considered a good day. My alone time is spent thrifting at local second-hand stores and online platforms. I also enjoy renovating spaces in my home and assisting others in decorating their space. I actually just signed up to take two classes at Long Beach City College next semester called Home Remodeling Fundamentals and Home Remodeling Tiling. I’ve always enjoyed working with my dad on home improvement projects, so now I get to expand my skills. A true life-long learner I guess.

About IVA High

IVA High is a fully accredited, tuition-free public high school in Long Beach, California with a mission to empower students to think well: creatively, critically, and with a capacity for self-growth. Our learner-centered approach puts students in charge of their education, while dual enrollment and paid internships transform learning into action. Students come for college prep, STEAM and limitless options for their future; they stay for smaller, safer learning in a vibrant, caring community. Join us–we’re building curious minds & empowered community.