Last Thursday, Luis Sanchez Aguilar stood before the inaugural Caminos al Futuro cohort of Latino high school students and their families in the Lehman Auditorium of GW’s Science and Engineering Hall and prepared to deliver his final presentation.
Mr. Aguilar was among 15 high-achieving students selected for the three-week residential, pre-college leadership program funded by the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute.
He conceived his project—to improve how Latino immigrant students at his high school, Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, D.C., are taught English—based on his own struggles learning English following his family’s immigration from Guatemala to D.C. three years ago.
Mr. Aguilar stood nervously in front of a projected PowerPoint slide and took a deep breath.
“I’m going to do my project in Spanish,” he said quietly and audience members nodded in appreciation.
His choice to deliver his project in Spanish and the audience’s positive reception was reflective of the program, which was designed to offer Latino students who demonstrate exceptional scholarship and leadership skills an inclusive and supportive learning environment and a unique summer education experience at GW.
“When English is your second language, it’s hard and you get discriminated against,” Mr. Aguilar said. “But this program, it made me feel like a leader—like I can do anything.”
The majority of the Caminos participants are first-generation Americans or Latino immigrants living in more than 10 different cities across the United States and Puerto Rico.
“These students are the realization of the dream I had for this program,” said Gil Cisneros, who, with his wife, Jacki, donated $7 million to GW to establish the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute last year. The institute encompasses Caminos al Futuro for rising high school seniors, as well as scholarship and mentoring support for selected Cisneros Scholars, GW students who demonstrate a commitment to leadership and community service, particularly within the Hispanic community. The institute also offers opportunities for students, faculty and fellows to conduct and publish research on policy issues facing the Hispanic community.
GW students selected for the first cohort of Cisneros Scholars were among the members of the GW community who provided mentorship support to participants in Caminos al Futuro.
The inaugural three-week summer program included site visits on Capitol Hill with Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), meetings with Hispanic and Latino advocacy groups, a visit to Annapolis, lessons in tolerance and standing up to bigotry, and skill-building exercises in writing and the college admissions process.
Elizabeth Vaquera, director of the Cisneros Institute, agreed, adding that Caminos al Futuro was an opportunity for high school students to build relationships with one another and meet with Latino leaders in government, advocacy and business, while developing skills to positively affect the Latino community.
Caminos al Futuro Program Director Judith Perez Caro is an expert in Latino studies, diversity and equity work, student affairs and program development. Dr. Caro was recruited to concieve and develop the program curriculum and framework.
"Caminos al Futuro was created to serve as a pipeline program that prepare future leaders of Hispanic and Latino origin for post-secondary academic success, with the hope that the scholars would apply to and matriculate at GW or other selective colleges and universities," Dr. Caro said. "The impetus for this program is to increase diversity, equity and inclusion at GW, while building the confidence, acumen and skills to empower the next generation of Hispanic leaders."
Each student also created a community action project aligned with their interests and informed by their experiences and the program curriculum, which outlined the state of Hispanic and Latino populations in the United States and current issues facing those communities.
Caminos participant and Brownsville, Texas native Javier Gonzalez was inspired to develop a “food incubator” for his community action project. The “food incubator” located in his hometown would hopefully encourage healthy eating, incorporate locally sourced produce and promote small businesses by encouraging restaurant entrepreneurs to test their products in a modern community space.
Puerto Rico native Laura Marrero developed a community action project focused on preparing Puerto Rican students for college admissions and academics through after school tutoring. She said that meeting influential leaders and becoming friends with her fellow scholars made the program an unforgettable experience.
“I found out about the program two days before the deadline, but I applied anyway,” Ms. Marrero said. “If students are thinking about applying they should just take the risk—it’s worth it.”
Following the presentations, Silvia Sana, mother of Caminos scholar Anna Little-Sana, shared her enthusiasm for the students’ projects.
“Can you imagine if in the United States there were more groups like this and they were all fired up with a vision?” Ms. Sana said. “I think that this is the youth of the future.”
As the final program came to a close, Ezequiel Gonzalez, a high school student from Indianapolis, Ind., shared a sentiment with the audience that summed up the experiences of many of the Caminos scholars who traveled far from home to complete the intensive Caminos al Futuro program, forge new relationships and prepare for future success.
“At the very beginning, I struggled, but in the end, here’s the thing: ‘Somos Latinos!’” Mr. Gonzalez said to cheers from the audience. “We are more family than we could ever imagine, and perhaps even more than family because you choose your friends.”