This story comes from NBC Latino.
As the only girl and the oldest of four children, Ariadna Covarrubias had to her help parents take care of her brothers, so she never participated in school activities. From as long as she could remember, her shyness ruled her life. She had learned to speak in a tiny wisp of a voice, and communicating with adults, even with her teachers, was in her mind an insurmountable task. Though she always knew she wanted to pursue higher education, her parents, both of whom speak little English and work long hours to support the family, were in no situation to support her college ambitions.
Then one day, while in high school, she learned about Adelante Chicas, a program that, unbeknownst to her, would change her life forever. After attending the program, this former wallflower has graduated as valedictorian in her high school and is set to become a Multicultural Center Equity Ambassador at Portland Community College, where she hopes to start her journey to become a biochemical engineer.
It is hard to listen to Covarrubias’s story without feeling as if you’ve heard it before. We all personally know someone like her: a young woman with aspirations, whose family came to this country in search of better opportunities. Education, as study after study shows, ranks higher than any other issue for our community. Yet, unfortunately, for a big segment of our community, language, lack of knowledge about how the system works, and the general socioeconomic realities that plague our community are not just numbers on a cleverly-designed infographic — they are simply a stark reality to be lived through every day.
Covarrubias considers herself one of the lucky ones. “The Adelante Chicas program taught me to make connections that would help me, to reach out for help and, most importantly, to overcome my shyness and to express myself,” she says.
Adelante Chicas is a youth development program organized by Adelante Mujeres, a non-profit organization that operates locally in the Portland, Oregon area since 2002. Set as an after school program in partnership with the Portland school district, the program operates in seven local schools, ranging from elementary to high school, offering culturally-relevant programming and community involvement opportunities to the 240 Latina girls who have participated in the program each year since its inception.
Through partnerships with local colleges and universities, the organization also developed Journey to College, a new initiative entirely focused on college preparation for Latino families, including financial literacy, college workshops and visits, and matched savings accounts to assist low-income families in paying for their children’s studies.
With so many Latina empowerment programs out there, what makes this particular program so special? “We go beyond just offering these young girls path to college support,” says Cecilia Giron, the Program’s Director. “We make sure these young girls learn about body image, better communication with their peers, leadership, bullying, LGBT issues, ecological awareness, healthy lifestyles, and the risk factors that impact their lives as Latinas in this country… all of those topics that they may not have the opportunity to talk about in normal school setting, or even with their own families.”
Indeed. For girls like Covarrubias, the program functions as a cocoon from which they can emerge, strong, outspoken and empowered, to blossom as take-charge women in their own communities. And it works: the average high school graduation rate of Latina youth in the Adelante Chicas program is over 90 percent, and 9 of 10 of these young women continue on to higher education.
Where the program goes above and beyond, the reason its success record is so high, may have more to do with the host of services the organization provides beyond the youth empowerment program. These services (which include adult education, English skills, GED preparation, computer basics, leadership, parenting, civic engagement, small business development, financial literacy, and local farmer support) provide a solid social context within the educational setting.
By taking into consideration the interwoven challenges faced by young bi-cultural Latinas and building a tight support system around their everyday lives, the program succeeds in making the students, parents, school administrators, teachers, and the community at large accountable and active participants in the future success of these girls.
“We can’t just do one thing. We have to look at our community’s situation holistically in order to build capacity in this community,” adds Giron. “What we are trying to create is that safe environment so that the whole community can rise. As leaders, we need to make people aware about the need to invest in education, not just their own or their family’s own, but everyone’s education.”
With Latinos/as having been – and continuing to be – underrepresented in leadership positions across all institutions and sectors, the challenges facing those who aspire to become leaders and power brokers in this country are significant. For a young Latino/a, it is easier to give under the pressure that everyday life and immediate environment can exert than to walk towards the higher education path, where no ‘real guarantees’ seem to await.
Granted, the Adelante Chicas program offers no such guarantees either. What it does offer is support that comes from a deep understanding that environment, academic learning, and personal development are intertwined, inseparable elements of a student’s experience. For a whole generation of Latino boys and girls like Ariadna, that nugget of understanding may be exactly what they need to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Elianne Ramos is a contributor to NBCLatino.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.