“The joy of changing a life can happen at a local level or at a global one,” explains Raissa Smorol. She’s development director for the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation, which, in 2016 alone, granted 3,019 scholarships totaling $8.76 million and provided financial aid advice to more than 36,500 students and families in Santa Barbara County. “Education is one of the key drivers for personal and community change,” she says. “Providing an education is one of the best ways to create quality in a society. It creates a fair platform for young people to reach their fullest potential.”
Raissa’s commitment to helping others started at an early age. She grew up in an affluent community in Westchester, New York, but headed to Belize when she was 16 to dig trenches for USAID and teach English. It was life-changing experience. She noticed that people lacked material wealth but had an abundance of love, and that the concept of “enough” was different from how she’d been brought up. She explains, “It opened my eyes to basic needs in the community: access to clean water, medical care, consistent education, and job opportunity.”
Raissa returned to the United States hoping to “alleviate some of these imbalances.” She got an undergraduate degree from Cornell, a Masters in Public Administration from Columbia, and then worked for a philanthropy consultancy, where she specialized in designing strategic fundraising.
Raissa speaks very passionately about education. “The number one reason why students don’t enroll in school is finances and the number one reason why they drop out is finances,” she says, which is where the Scholarship Foundation comes in. She’s proud of her five years with the organization, which she describes as “incredibly well-run and with deep roots in the Santa Barbara community.” She says, “I truly believe that giving a student the opportunity of an education is changing the world.”
Raissa answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind?
Happy and thankful. I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary in Santa Barbara. Moving from NYC was a big risk. I didn’t know a single person out here. Five years later, I have close and loving friends, a great job, and I feel so fortunate to be part of the Santa Barbara community. I appreciate how very lucky I am.
What do you like most about your job?
Meeting the students to whom we provide financial assistance. It’s impossible to be cynical about the future once you’ve spent time with the bright, driven, passionate, and compassionate young people who apply to the Scholarship Foundation. Our world is in good hands.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A day at the beach with friends, good wine, and a good book.
What is your greatest fear?
That, at the end of my life, I feel like I didn’t live up to my fullest potential. That I didn’t take advantage of all the incredible opportunities I’ve been given. That I didn’t make each day count as much as it does.
Who do you most admire?
There isn’t one single person I most admire. I’ve had many mentors and friends in my life who inspire, nudge me forward, and encourage me.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I spend way too much money doting on my niece and nephew. I can’t help it. Fortunately, they are still too young to take advantage of my weakness when it comes to them!
What is the quality you most like in people?
Kindness, integrity, wit, compassion, honesty.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Entitlement, self-centeredness, spite, narcissism. Basically, anyone who thinks it’s all about him or her. I struggle with people who refuse to look beyond their personal experience.
What do you most value in friends?
So many things! Above all, I value when they help me stay focused on the things that truly matter.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but I am not one to suffer fools gladly. For better or for worse, I have a pretty refined B.S. detector.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I honestly don’t know.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be a great singer, but that dream went out the window when I was kicked out of Chorus in junior high and placed in Music Appreciation.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I were more patient. It’s probably the New Yorker in me, but I frequently try to rush things along.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
A few longstanding friendships. I have friends I met in nursery school and we are still important to each other. We have shared every stage in life so far and that is invaluable. As is often said, you can’t make a new old friend.
Where would you most like to live?
I’d love to be bi-coastal. I want to spend most of the year in Santa Barbara but I miss NYC in the fall. Christmas in the city is magical too.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not terribly attached to things, but if I had to pick one, it would be a photo of my parents from the time of their engagement. They look so vibrant and happy and I’m struck by how that is the moment when our family began. I look at that photo every day. I love feeling connected to my roots.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My niece and nephew, a few people with particularly dry humor, Fletch.
What is your motto?
Only you can make your life happen.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I suppose it’s Raisa Gorbachev, although I don’t identify with her in any way other than our shared name. I wrote her a letter when I was in elementary school and asked her over for a slumber party. Not surprisingly, she didn’t write back.
On what occasion do you lie?
I admit to using a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.