A Journey of Learning: Meet Big KIPPster Melanie Barrios

A Journey of Learning: Meet Big KIPPster Melanie Barrios

In honor of our 20th anniversary, we're paying tribute to an exceptional KIPPster who embarked on her journey as a young student at KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory over 13 years ago — and has now returned to her alma mater as an educator to serve her community.

The Vital Role of Educators of Color

Melanie Barrios was driven by curiosity from a young age. Even though she was an only child, she didn’t let that stop her from indulging in ballet, playing the violin, or joining the Girl Scouts. Melanie loved science, and her mother was determined to find a school that quenched her thirst for knowledge. 

When her mother learned about KIPP LA Prep, she was instantly attracted to the school's commitment to academic excellence and supporting students to and through college. Despite living in South Los Angeles, Melanie's mother made the commute to Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights so that Melanie could have access to a high-quality education. 

At KIPP LA Prep, Melanie thrived in an environment that challenged and motivated her to strive for greatness. She made the most of her middle school experience and was involved in the student council, cheerleading, and mock trials.

Melanie (center with knee-high socks) and her fellow KIPP LA Prep KIPPsters

But it wasn’t just the rigorous academics and expanded learning opportunities that set Melanie up for success—it was the unwavering support from her teachers that showed her anything was possible. She was constantly inspired and motivated by her teachers and genuinely believes they helped instill confidence in herself and her goals. 

“I saw role models here. I saw people who looked like me or came from the same background as me, sharing their college experience and telling us anything is possible if we just work hard and ask for help. Having these role models every single day made the vision of college a reality,” she said. 

Through the encouragement of her teachers, Melanie applied to the KIPP STEP program, which allows KIPPsters from across the county to spend the summer at Deerfield Academy and experience life at a boarding school. 

Melanie (center with glasses) and her Stevenson School classmates at their graduation

After completing the program, she was eager to continue challenging herself and embrace her independence. She applied to several prestigious boarding schools for high school and was accepted to Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, where tuition costs $77,900 for residential students. 

With the support of her KIPP Forward high school placement counselor, Melanie applied and was awarded the Jack Kent Cookie Foundation Young Scholars scholarship — a selective five-year, pre-college scholarship for high-performing 7th-grade students with financial need. As a recipient, Melanie received a full-ride scholarship to Stevenson School.

A Change of Course

Melanie attended the prestigious Barnard College in New York City, where she leaned into her love for science and began her journey as a pre-med student. Even though she was used to being independent, thanks to her experience at Stevenson, she relied heavily on her KIPP Forward college counselor during her first two weeks of college to help her navigate campus life.

While at Barnard, Melanie had a challenging experience with one of her professors, who created an intimidating environment and made her feel unsupported as a female Latina STEM student. As a result, she decided to switch to a different STEM major—architecture—where she enjoyed watching her ideas materialize into tangible creations by the end of each semester. Melanie proudly walked across the stage to receive her diploma in 2019, and shortly thereafter, she made the journey back to her hometown of South LA.

Melanie's Barnard graduation

During the pandemic, her interest in teaching was sparked when she came across news headlines that frequently highlighted the difficulties faced by students due to the shift towards distance learning. The struggles faced by these students motivated her to explore the possibility of becoming a teacher to make a positive impact in her community.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and it felt like this was my call to action. I’m seeing my community struggle, and I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, so I thought maybe this is my time to do it,” said Melanie. 

In 2021, she joined Loyola Marymount University's Teach For America program, which allows participants to obtain a teaching credential and a Master's Degree in urban education. Through this program, participants are thoughtfully connected to local schools, and Melanie was serendipitously placed at a middle school in South LA, where she taught sixth-grade science for two years.

Melanie inside her first classroom

Once she stepped into the classroom, she was confident teaching was the right career choice for her and felt fulfilled she was able to give back to her community. She strongly believed that she was in the right place at the right time and envisioned herself as a teacher for the rest of her life.

A Full Circle Moment

Not long into her career, she heard from a KIPP Forward counselor that KIPP LA Prep was looking for a fifth-grade science teacher and knew this position was meant for her. She immediately jumped at the opportunity, and not long after, she was back in the hallways where she had once walked. 

“This is where doors were opened. This is where I was taught such valuable skills that molded my character. The core values we have at KIPP LA Prep—love, honor, integrity, excellence—are still values that I hold myself accountable to and continue to exemplify in my everyday life,” she said.

Melanie engaging with one of her KIPP LA Prep students

As a STEM educator, she knows she has an even bigger responsibility to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment where students feel seen, heard, and valued. Because of her shared experiences as a KIPPster, Melanie quickly built genuine relationships with her students. 

“My goal is to make science more approachable. To make it a space where all students feel like they can learn and express curiosity. To be unafraid to ask questions,” she said. “It’s little things like that that shift attitudes for students. I want to be the opposite of that professor in college. I want this space to be not only fun but a space to grow and ask questions.”

Melanie is on a mission to break down barriers and inspire the next generation of students of color so they feel confident pursuing their dreams. She feels extremely lucky and privileged to be part of the KIPP LA Prep community again and hopes to be the same inspiring role model to her students as her teachers were to her.