When Salma Sanchez arrived in the U.S. at age 15, she had never taken an art class.
Sure, she’d been drawing and doodling and even created a cover for a book she made up. But Salma never had any formal art training, which wasn’t offered in her school in the Dominican Republic. Instead, she watched YouTube videos to learn different techniques.
So when she arrived at Tohopekaliga High School and saw Jenny Mohess’s classroom, she
immediately asked if she could study graphic design. Mohess had a long career in graphic design, working for Apple and Microsoft before she shifted gears to teach at Toho High School in Osceola County.
There, Mohess is part of a team that helps Toho High students earn college credits at Valencia in arts-related fields. The partnership was created through grant funding from JP Morgan Chase grant and United Arts of Central Florida.
At Toho High, Mohess created a graphic design agency and her students do visuals work for the high school and the county’s school district – all good practice for them to sharpen their skills.
Mohess – a Valencia grad who worked at Apple during the launch of the first iPhone and later managed the Southeast region for Microsoft — is a rock star, says Wendy Givoglu, provost of the Downtown and Winter Park campuses, who oversaw the JP Morgan grant while serving as dean of the college’s School of Arts and Entertainment.
Mohess teaches part-time at Valencia, but her primary focus is leading the Career and Technical Education department in Toho High School, a magnet school where the emphasis is on engineering, sciences, technology, math and the arts.
Along the way, she has also proven to be a terrific mentor to dozens of budding graphic and digital design students.
In May 2022, Mohess took Salma and seven of her Toho High classmates to Dallas, where they competed in the Adobe Certified Professional U.S. National Championship. Salma placed second in the contest, which is a nationwide competition testing high school students’ design skills in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.
To enter the national competition, students must pass their Adobe certified professional exam, then enter an original design project. The Toho High students were the only students in Florida selected to participate.
“The most important thing for the students to meet other students from across the country and realize they can compete on a national stage,” Mohess said.
After placing second in Dallas, Salma astounded herself – and her mentor – by winning first place at the World Championship in California in July. During the contest, the finalists were given eight hours to design a poster for The Ocean Agency, a nonprofit ad agency that promotes conservation and ocean science.
“All of the entries demonstrated a clear aptitude for design, and an incredible artistic flair,” said Richard Vevers, Founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency. “We were really impressed by the professional-level work these students accomplished in just eight hours – which proves they can follow client instructions and use both their innate design abilities and the Adobe skills they’ve learned in school to create something amazing and industry-ready.”
When the judges announced the grand prize winner, Salma was stunned. Her teacher, Jenny Mohess, began crying but Salma was too startled to cry. “I was happy and shocked because I never imagined this was going to happen,” says Salma.
Recalls Mohess: “The morning of the awards, we were looking at all the designs and I told her, ‘You will be in the top four.’ We analyzed all the designs, and I gave her feedback, and I said, ‘you got this.’ I knew in my heart she won, but when they said her name, ‘Salma Sanchez World Champion’ – it was the most surreal moment of any teacher’s heart.”
With the $8,500 she won — $1,500 for placing second in the U.S. competition and $7,000 for winning the international competition – Salma purchased supplies for Print Palace, her small graphic design business: a T-shirt press, a hat press and a printer.
“I already have a few customers,” says Salma, smiling. “But I could always use more.”
But for now, the 18-year-old is shuttling between Valencia’s Osceola and East campuses, taking graphic design classes. And like all other Osceola County high school graduates from the class of 2022, her classes are free, thanks to Osceola Prosper, an initiative funded by the Osceola County Commission.
While Salma already has some impressive credentials, she’s just getting started. She plans to finish her associate in science degree at Valencia and then earn a business degree.
However, Salma has designs on bigger things.
“Ideally, I would love to work for a big company like Disney,” she says. “But I want to learn how to run my own business too.”