It was career day at Miguel Cardona’s middle school in Newark, N.J. He was 10 years old at the time.
None of the presentations resonated with the current George Washington University senior public health and pre-med student. They didn’t seem to match his ambitions, but they did seem to reflect the world around him—one defined by a lack of resources in his community that was predominantly Hispanic and Black (according to Census data, Newark is 46.5% Black, 36.8% Hispanic and 9.9% white).
He sensed a pattern from those presenting. People from where he grew up graduated high school or earned their GED, picked up a skills job and had defined ceilings in their roles no matter how highly motivated or talented they seemed. Cardona left career day inspired, just maybe in a different way.
“I went back and told my mom that there's an issue,” Cardona said. “I didn’t feel represented, no one looked like me or spoke Spanish. I didn’t see myself reflected in the people who presented.”
So, as most 10-year-olds do, he started a nonprofit organization. No, seriously. He did.
At his young age, he saw a need and opted to carve a different path than the one he felt destined to go down if he didn’t act. Cardona hatched an idea to begin a mentoring program—which he’d call the Boys to Leaders Foundation—that empowers young boys in Newark to unlock potential some of them didn’t even know they had.
“I think a lot of people fall through the cracks, especially young men, because of a lack of role models and honestly a lack of mentorships,” Cardona said. “Sometimes, you must be your own advocate.”
According to a study from the Avenue Group, there is weak diversity among categories of influence, which included business, politics, entertainment and culture, to identify the level of diversity by both gender and race. Furthermore, less than 40% of both the Hispanic and Black populations have associate degrees or higher, far less than counterparts of other racial demographics. High school-level attainers over the age of 25 primarily work in the civilian job force with service, office and administrative, transportation and logistics positions as the top occupations.
“There’s not enough resources for development, and honestly there wasn’t a lot of support for anything except for sports, which is kind of the only way a lot of people in Newark saw as their ticket out,” Cardona added.
It’s one thing to have an idea. It’s another completely to turn into action, especially since he hadn’t even spent a day in this world yet as a teenager. As Cardona realized early in the process, he couldn’t do it alone. He relied on his mother, who encouraged him to follow through on his idea. She could connect with some of her mentors and share the vision to get support from the city to launch the organization. Lo and behold, those relationships helped Cardona and his mother secure space in the city to host a conference and find presenters and supporters from their network. His mother worked closely with other nonprofits and possessed knowledge in gaining sponsorships and finding resources to fund their programs.
The first conference 10 years ago was small. Maybe 50 boys showed up, mostly by word of mouth as Cardona first encouraged his closest friends to attend. It was in the student center at New Jersey Institute of Technology—they were intentional on hosting the conference on a college campus as they wanted to expose young men to a college campus. It was the official launch of the Boys to Leaders Foundation, which in the decade since has grown to a conference with more than 200 attendees that required a move to the larger Rutgers University in Newark.
The foundation has since formed partnerships with local schools, scouts and ROTC groups. Nowadays, boys come to the leadership conference by school bus or with school administrators and parents. They also host a parent workshop to assist them in supporting their son through the college process.
As the number of attendees grew over the years, so too did the range of speakers. Cardona, his mother and the 16-member board, have prided themselves on the diversity of presenters throughout the years, which has included representatives from bank institutions talking about financial literacy, judges, entrepreneurs and an employee from Nike’s NYC headquarters.
“This exposes these young men to a lot of niche jobs I don’t think they knew even existed,” Cardona said, noting many of the speakers have come from similar upbringings. “They’ve been able to inspire the young men, by sharing how they achieved their dreams and pitfalls. We change the mindset of many of the students who attend. Born and raised in Newark in a community with limited resources sometimes, you think there is no other way. But you learn when you see our presenters and peers you are not alone.”
In addition, the Boys to Leadership Foundation now awards scholarships to deserving students. Nearly all the money, Cardona said, comes from donors. Cardona himself sponsors one, which he named after his grandfather, the Hercules M. Peña Leadership Scholarship.
“Seeing how much my scholarship impacts a student that helps put them through their education is a cool way to see your own impact,” Cardona said. “It is important to remember to give back and that is something that was instilled in me at a very early age.”
He’s still actively working for the nonprofit he cofounded even through his studies as a Milken Institute School of Public Health student at GW and Cisneros Scholar of the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute. The university has given opportunities to find his own academic niche—he hopes to become an oncologist someday—while allowing him to grow as a leader. In fact, he is president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. He was also on the dean’s council for multicultural recruitment, helping with outreach for members of underrepresented communities to attend GW. Cardona was also an orientation leader for three years.
There’s a strong foundation laid at Boys to Leaders that no matter where Cardona’s hopeful medical career takes him, it is set up to thrive and inspire countless other young boys in Newark to continue living out the mission.
“Just 10 years ago, it was a grassroots start up,” Cardona said. “But we’re here actually creating a positive impact in the community. Taking a step back, it’s great to be a part of something bigger that will continue to impact the lives of younger generations. It gives everyone the opportunity to serve and give back to their community. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my community as I continue to grow in my own career path."
In another 10 years, perhaps he’ll be the one presenting at a career day, showing a 10-year-old in the classroom that the ceilings he felt while at that child’s age are capable of being lifted.
GW Serves is a monthly series featuring students who are living out the university’s mission to build up public service leaders and active citizens to create a better world for all.