High-Achieving Latino Students Hone Leadership Skills at GW

Caminos al Futuro, a program funded by the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, welcomed its second cohort of high school students this summer.

July 31, 2017


The 2017 cohort of Caminos Al Futuro, a leadership development summer program at GW for high-achieving, Latino high school students. (Photo credit: Judy Licht)

By Ruth Steinhardt

When Amy Guerrero was a fourth grader in Nashville, Tenn., a teacher noticed her uncommon academic talent and insisted on testing her for Encore, her county school system’s gifted and talented program. It was a resource, she said, that changed her life. But Ms. Guerrero, who is Latina, said few minority students like her are given a chance to access it.

There is a 3-to-1 ratio of white to minority students enrolled in Encore, Ms. Guerrero said—a ratio not reflective of the county’s demographics.

“In some counties in Florida and Texas, they test every student for giftedness. But in Nashville you can only get tested if your parent or teacher recommends you,” Ms. Guerrero said. “I was lucky that my teacher recognized it. My mom would never even have heard of [the program] because of the language barrier.”

Ms. Guerrero has a plan to combat that discrepancy. When she returns to Nashville for her senior year of high school, she will work with a local nonprofit to translate brochures about Encore into Spanish and give them out at parent-teacher conferences. Parents must sign and return the brochures, proving they are aware of the resources available to their children.

“The information is available, but it’s only in English, and it’s not distributed,” she said. “That’s what I want to change.”

She presented her plan as her final project for Caminos Al Futuro, a residential leadership development program designed by Associate Professor Elizabeth Vaquera, director of the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute at the George Washington University.

With 15 other high-achieving Latino high school students, all rising seniors, she spent three weeks in Washington, D.C., participating in a cross-disciplinary undergraduate course on critical issues facing Hispanic and Latino communities.  The group was selected from a competitive pool of 123 applicants for their academic achievements and leadership experiences.

Besides their academic commitments—which included an essay-writing class to help jump-start their college applications process—Caminos participants also made trips to Capitol Hill to sit down with members of Congress, met with Hispanic and Latino advocacy groups, visited embassies and engaged each other in conversations about race, power and activism.

“I told them on day one, ‘You’re going to be uncomfortable,’” said program coordinator Mario Enriquez. “And they all rose to the challenge.”

For their final projects, Caminos participants created community action plans tackling problems in their own communities—from suicide prevention to finding ways undocumented immigrants can pay for college.

Nicolas Rios has worked with HIV/AIDS prevention programs in his hometown of Tucson, Ariz., for several years. His final project took on disproportionate rates of sexually transmitted infection among Tucson’s Latino and African-American populations. Like Ms. Guerrero, Mr. Rios found that a major problem was lack of access to information. He intends to work with the Lifeline Program, which provides discounted phones and service to low-income families, to pre-program contact information so phone owners can seek out information about sexual health.

“The goal is a more educated and empowered community,” he said. 

Higinia Flores—whose classmates in New York City voted her “most likely to be leading a rally”—wants to implement a high school curriculum on LGBTQ history and culture, with a focus on African-American and Latino communities.

“Many of us in schools don’t have a space to learn about these issues,” Ms. Flores said.

Asked if she wanted to be a high school teacher herself, Ms. Flores smiled. “I want to be in Congress,” she said.

For Mr. Enriquez, that’s a good answer.

“These students are wise beyond their years,” he said. “They’re 17, and they are already steps ahead of the game in the their personal and professional development. Their insight and depth of knowledge is inspiring. I think our future is in good hands.”

The Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute plays a crucial role developing the next generation of leaders of the Hispanic community and beyond. A philanthropic gift from Gil Cisneros, B.A. '94, and his wife, Jacki, established the institute at GW's Colulmbian College of Arts and Sciences in 2015.