High School students participating in the Scholars’ Latino Initiative (SLI) frequently step up to take on leadership roles in their local communities. Described as a “star in the making” by her mentor (UNC-Chapel Hill senior Jakelin Bonilla), Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, a senior from Jordan Matthews High School, emerged from her shell through her high school years with SLI to become a force for change in Siler City.
In addition to volunteering as a translator at a nearby elementary school and helping bilingual children with their homework, Jazmin petitioned to obtain grants for environmental campaigns as Hispanic Liaison Youth Delegate for the local Hispanic Liaison Youth Group, which received a mini-grant from the Alces Foundation to fund an Environmental Campaign. In collaboration with Clean Up The World, and Siler City Hall, she helped to lead a clean-up of downtown Siler City, and produced a documentary of the clean up to highlight the commitment of the Latinos population to the health of their community. Funds from Alces Foundation were also designated for jobless families in Siler City.
Jazmin has overcome countless obstacles to become the first female in her family to seek a college education, a dream she once thought impossible. “Nobody in my family has a professional career,” she explains. “I would be the first female to pursue a career.” Jakelin views her mentee as “now the strongest advocate for Latino Youth in her community and is also helping the Siler City youth realize the potential that they have within.”
Oscar Avilez, also a senior at Jordan Matthews High School, has distinguished himself among his SLI peers as a leader, scholar and humanitarian. He co-founded his own youth group, Chatham Habitat Active Teens (CHAT) in order to motivate more teens to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. After being featured in the newspaper he was able to organize a successful carwash, which raised $1000 for CHAT. Oscar also saw the need to train the next generation of CHAT leaders and proceeded to help create a middle-school group, "CHIT-CHAT," who will keep CHAT alive when Oscar and his co-founder leave high school. “The feeling of knowing I have done something to change a person’s life or improve the status of my community is amazing,” says Oscar when discussing the connection he feels with community service.
Daniel Freeman, Oscar Avilez’ mentor at UNC-Chapel Hill notes “Oscar trusts his own self efficacy and strives to be the change he wishes to see in the world. The challenges facing many SLI students “unfortunately have not left Oscar unspared. Looking at his resume, one gets a sense of his involvement but I can attest that his leadership and his service ethic are the expression of a joy of giving his time to others and a steadfast drive to see the betterment of his community. We call this program the “Scholars’ Latino Initiative” but I, for one, as a mentor, didn’t give him his sense of initiative – that was his own.”
Scholars’ Latino Initiative (SLI) organizes opportunities for public service throughout the year in ways that create community, foster relationships and educate both mentors and mentees about needs and resources in their local communities related to homelessness, health care, and environmental stewardship. So far this academic year, student volunteers have worked at HOPE Gardens in Chapel Hill, learning about shared solutions in sustainable agriculture, Habitat for Humanity-Durham and also heard from “Autism Speaks” leaders advocating for greater awareness in the area of autism services
I have the general sense that the spirit of mentoring positively infiltrates all areas of SLI students' lives. While we typically think of the impact of SLI’s mentoring and college prep program on its high school students, it is clear that SLI mentors, upon leaving UNC-Chapel Hill, continue to find ways to proactively nurture the higher education aspirations of Latino students and other underserved populations. Some join “Teach for America” and the Peace Corps while others find ways to innovate new services while pursuing separate professional careers.
Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) Inspired by SLI
After graduating with Highest Honors in Public Policy and International Studies (with a minor in Sustainability) from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010, SLI mentor and co-director Sam Wurzelmann moved to the Washington D.C. area to work as a Solutions Fellow for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Sam’s work at Pew involves researching economic competitiveness issues related to clean energy policy at both the state and federal levels, including how climate policy can better position U.S. firms to compete in emerging global clean energy markets.
Since moving to the area in September 2010, Sam has been volunteering with the Arlington, Virginia-based non-profit Educación Para Nuestro Futuro (Edu-Futuro) as a mentor in the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP). He has also been helping launch the Emerging Leaders Program: Part II (ELP II). ELP II is modeled off of SLI’s framework of mentoring, college prep and service and also builds off of the success of the semester-long ELP Part I program. ELP II is a robust three year mentoring program for immigrant high school students offering meaningful activities that support the students’ goals of successfully applying to and excelling in college. The program strives to provide access to full funding for college, no matter the need. As of October 2011, ELP II had launched its pilot year with 10 mentor-mentee pairings. The program is working with mentors at Georgetown University and George Washington University.
It is gratifying beyond measure to know that the passion for working with Latino youth does not lie dormant when SLI mentors leave campus and that the considerable skills and knowledge they have gained as mentors are being transferred in meaningful ways to inspire the creation of new programs and services.
SLI Program Coordinator
by Patricia Laya, mentor class of 2012
Most SLI mentors and mentees had never seen tigers up close, and truthfully, most of us never expected to do it in North Carolina. But last Sunday, after spending an afternoon hard at work clearing and weeding cages, we were rewarded with a private tour of the Carolina Tiger Rescue. Their mission is to save and protect wildcats in captivity or in the wild since 2009. We learned all about tigers, ocelots, bobcats and servals from our wonderful tour guide, who introduced us to Jelly Bean, Carmelita, Santana, Rajaji and many others.
Some of the best moments included finding a nest of baby bunnies while cleaning the cages and receiving a welcoming spray from Rajaji, who tried to mark his territory while we were visiting his cage. We were thankful to help out such a great cause and hope to visit the tigers very soon!
Throughout my four years of college I had always heard people rave about Charanga Carolina, a latin ensemble on campus. In describing the latin ensemble, my friends always used words like "amazing," "infectious," and "mind-blowing" – little did I know their descriptions paled in comparison to the real deal. Seeing them play had climbed to a high spot on my UNC bucket list, needing to be checked off before my May graduation, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when they agreed to play a show for the Scholars' Latino Initiative (SLI).
The development committee was working hard throughout the semester to plan a spectacular event, arranging all the details and publicizing their butts off. Then, the week of the show, we learned that the UNC men's basketball team had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tourney and would be playing at the same time as the performance. Miracle or disaster? I can't decide. You see, nothing can compete with a Tarheel's devotion to men's basketball, especially with an all-star lineup like the one we had this year. I feared the show would be more of a no-show.
But wrong, I was. Students and members of the community alike came out in droves for salsa dance lessons an hour before Charanga started playing and stayed during the performance (and the game) to try out their new moves with the infectious latin rhythms. Veteran ballroom dancers and natural born movers and shakers came as well, sweeping the floor with grace and gaining the attention of the newbies to the scene. I, myself, did my best Shakira impersonation and shuffled my feet as close to the beat as I could get.
Meanwhile, the game was broadcast throughout the event (on mute) on the big screen, and we even got a special video message from Harrison Barnes, Leslie McDonalad and John Henson! As our Tarheels crushed Marquette 81-63, we took a moment to sing UNC's favorite, "Hark the Sound" and celebrated the win with more shaken' and groovin'!
I couldn't have been more pleased to see the support of the community and the enjoyment on peoples' faces as Charanga Carolina did what they do best – put on an "amazing," "infectious," and "mind-blowing" show. Thanks to everyone who came out, and immense thanks to Charanga Carolina for working with SLI and helping me scratch another thing off my bucket list.
During one weekend in February 2011, the sites had events near the mentees' communities to build connectivity and friendship amongst site members. For the SLI Asheboro High School site, the mentees and mentors participated in banner painting for a fund-raiser Rummage Sale at the Randolph Arts Guild.
As the Asheboro Site Coordinator, I (Diana) decided to tell the story of our day through picture collages.
We begin with the actual community service act: PAINTING!
After completing the painting of the huge banners, we posed for some group shots and toured the galleries. The exhibit on display at the time was composed by an artist who made photographs of broken, old, or interesting window frames (using a point-and-shoot)!
By the time we bid adios to the welcoming and energetic director of the guild, Mr. Derrick Sides, we were quite hungry. Some of the mentees suggested a sports restaurant downtown that had delicious food and a Carolina game on one of the TVs.
We ended the day by hanging out with one of our mentees who couldn't make it to the service event at a park on the other side of town. The day was gorgeous and we got to play on the jungle gym (20+ years old is not too old, I promise). Everyone seemed to enjoy the day and I was muy alegre to see the smiles on their faces.
We’re reaching the close of National Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15), which has been celebrated since 1968 in order to highlight the contributions of people from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America in the United States. This year, Hispanic Heritage Month has followed a long summer of protest and discontent nationwide in reaction to events that included a historic oil spill in the Gulf, financial insecurity from the Great Recession, and the nation’s toughest immigration law in recent history, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070. Few causes, however, sparked protests as desperate and urgent as those led by immigrant youth seeking the passage of the DREAM Act this summer.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, if passed by Congress, will give immigrant students access to higher education and a path to legal status. An estimated 65,000 students graduate from U.S. high schools annually but are unable to attend college because of their lack of legal status. Specifically, the DREAM Act would enable eligible students to apply for a conditional legal status for a six-year period in which they must graduate from college or serve in the military for two years. After this six-year period and a clean criminal record, students could obtain permanent legal residence status. Opponents of the DREAM Act think that it will reward bad behavior, namely illegal presence in the United States. The question of culpability is central to DREAM Act proponents, who point out that many of these students brought to the United States by their families as young children know no other home. Unable to attend college in their countries of birth or in the United States, they face an educational dead end.
In North Carolina, where most of the state’s half-million Hispanics are Tar Heel born and bred, immigrant youth played a prominent role in protests, which took many forms throughout the summer. These protests included hunger strikes ended only by hospitalization, 1500-mile“dream walks” from Florida to Washington, D.C., Facebook petitions signed by thousands, and rallies in front the capital building in Raleigh. Remarkably, many youth without legal immigration status overcame fears of being deported and participated publicly in these activities.
These student actions in NC and beyond created the momentum for legislators to advance the DREAM Act in Congress, which was introduced in September as an attachment to the Department of Defense Authorization Bill. Senator Kay Hagan’s office phone was busy for the two days before the vote, no doubt from a high volume of calls from supporters and opponents of the bill. On September 21, six days into Hispanic heritage month, a filibuster stalled the DREAM Act. Proving how toxic and politically unpopular immigration reform efforts have become, even the very author of the original DREAM Act (in 2001), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), did not back efforts to get the bill passed.
For students involved in the DREAM Act movement, this is only a temporary setback. “Our fight for the DREAM Act is far from being over. This is an opportunity to demonstrate the commitment and strength of our community as we demand our leaders … introduce the DREAM Act as a standalone bill before the elections,” wrote a DREAM Act supporter in North Carolina the day after the filibuster. On October 12, members the NC-based Adelante Education Coalition and “United We Dream Network” will open the inaugurating class of the North Carolina Dream University (NCDU) at the NC State Capitol in Raleigh. This movement will grow, like all youth movements born out of crises, until reform is achieved.
In the meanwhile, what is at stake for the many youth whose lives hinge upon the passage of this legislation? What is at stake for North Carolina communities? This question was answered in part for me a couple of weeks ago, when I ran into Juliette, one of the young people whose extraordinary story is featured in my book, The Latino Migration Experience in North Carolina: New Roots in the Old North State. In the book, Juliette discusses her experience of coming to the United States from Mexico at the age of fifteen with her mother and overcoming a number of obstacles after they were unable to renew their visas. In order to fulfill her dream of going to college, Juliette learned English, graduated from high school after repeating her senior year, studied for the SAT until she scored high enough to gain admittance to a community college, and transferred to a public university, where she maintained a GPA of 3.5. All the while, she worked full time to cover out-of-state tuition (despite the fact that her family pays NC taxes annually), stayed active in her church, and started a mental health support group for teens.
Now in her final semester of college, I asked Juliette the question that seniors hate: what do you plan to do next? For teachers, this is normally a fun question to pose to accomplished students like Juliette, because we have the benefit of experience to know that their hard work is about to pay off. These are students who will receive scholarships to graduate school, accept Congressional fellowships or Teach for America positions, or put their newly acquired skills and knowledge to work in their own communities. For Juliette, however, none of these options are available because of her immigration status. There are many thousands of students in her situation who will never be able to use their degrees to work in the United States.
Juliette replied that she would probably leave the United States to go to a country that would be receptive of her training and skills, which include a degree in psychology with a specialization in treating suicide and depression, fluency in several foreign languages, and extensive non-profit management experience. For this future leader, it’s a big world of opportunity. For North Carolina communities, Juliette is an opportunity lost. Unless, of course, the DREAM Act is passed.
Hannah Gill is assistant director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas and research associate at the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of Going to Carolina del Norte: Narrating Mexican Migrant Experiences.