By Ryan Wood 


When meeting with the families of Breakthrough SJC students, new director Elizabeth Eusebio chooses to be vulnerable.

She shares everything. In her eyes, she owes it to these families.

“I want them to see,” Ms. Eusebio says, “that their story is my story.”

Ms. Eusebio started as the new director of Breakthrough SJC last summer, and her first few months on the job has been immersed in, as she puts it, “eating and sleeping” Breakthrough SJC.

A tuition-free program supporting local motivated students whose backgrounds are underrepresented in higher education, Breakthrough provides academic programming and guidance from middle school through college graduation for students primarily from low-income households. Breakthrough is hosted and sponsored by St. Margaret’s, and serves students in and around the San Juan Capistrano community.

Alongside her diligent work learning the ins and outs of the program, Ms. Eusebio also has led meetings with students and families who are part of Breakthrough—and that’s where her own story provides a connection.

Ms. Eusebio was born in Southern California to immigrant parents, and raised in a Santa Ana home with five siblings where Spanish was the first language spoken. Her parents did not have a higher-education background, but they stressed the value of education and encouraged her to pursue all of her academic goals.

She did just that, while often recognizing that she was driving without headlights. She knew little about important college essentials like financial aid, but plowed forward nonetheless. After starting at community college, Ms. Eusebio earned her bachelors degree at Cal State-Fullerton, then her masters degree from Chapman University.

She started her career as a behavioral therapist in the Garden Grove Unified School District, before moving to a charter school in Riverside as an educator and inclusion specialist.

Education was her calling, but deep down she felt she had more to give. When she learned about the opening at Breakthrough SJC—former director Alex Serna accepted a new role in the national Breakthrough Collaborative office, of which Breakthrough SJC is an affiliate—Ms. Eusebio visited the summer program at St. Margaret’s and immediately found her home.

“I fell in love right away,” she said. “The energy of the students, and the support that Breakthrough received from the St. Margaret’s community, I have never been in a job where I felt that. These students’ lives where being transformed. Breakthrough was giving students like my younger self the opportunities they needed.”

Director of Equity and Inclusion Victor Cota hosted Ms. Eusebio on her visit, and was equally struck.

“I was overwhelmed by her ability to connect with them,” Mr. Cota said. “I could tell she was going to have a profound impact on Breakthrough’s students, families, and community.”

That community has grown extensively in size and scope over the last several years. While the mainstay summer program for middle school students is now in its 17th year, it has been complemented by programs that increase the number of students served. That includes weekly tutoring sessions for high school students, college counseling support for students and parents, and even a career readiness series for current Breakthrough SJC college students.

Today, the program assists more than 300 students from the local area in middle school through college graduation. The program supports students from Marco Forster Middle School, San Juan Hills High School, Dana Hills High School, Capistrano Valley High School, JSerra Catholic, and St. Margaret’s, as well as at colleges throughout the country.

Breakthrough SJC does its work in partnership with the community, including an advisory board, donors, and volunteers.

Ms. Eusebio sees Breakthrough solidifying their programs and the number of students served in the short-term.

“There is a great foundation in place,” she said. “We need to continue building upon that, maybe not grow in numbers but grow in what we provide. More tutoring, more partnerships…how can we provide more to our current students? How can we support Breakthrough students currently in college?”

The Breakthrough team is currently starting preparations for the 2022 summer session, which they hope can be a full-time, in-person program. The current health climate requires an abundance of planning, protocols and backup plans. The team consists of Ms. Eusebio and assistant director Samantha Geary with the support of an executive management team comprised of St. Margaret’s school leaders.

In the end, though, the mission of Breakthrough SJC remains: Breaking the cycle of poverty through the power of education by serving students from underrepresented backgrounds starting in middle school through college education.

“We’re striving to make our programs stronger, more accelerated, more impactful,” Ms. Eusebio said. “I’m excited to see where we can take this.”

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