SLI’s History and Future

Gloria Anzaldúa affectionately penned the line, “Nudge a Mexican and he or she will break out with a story” (2007, p. 87). Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to the SLI blog as a space for telling our stories.

Stories are not the truth, but the continuing and articulated truths of those who tell them. The history and future of SLI is a continuing story of students and families, schools and communities, educators, businesspersons and school administrators, societal inequities and access to higher education, and college dreams and fulfilled promises.

The 2011-12 development of the organization in Harrisonburg, VA, cannot be separated from that periods contentious debates over immigration and border security, shifting demographics of working families across Virginia, dramatic increases in the number of Hispanic students enrolling in Virginia’s public schools, the recognized diversity of ethnic and socio-economic groups within Hispanic communities, the trauma of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on local family homes, the political haggling over D.A.C.A. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and the courageous activism of high school and college Dreamers. Against this backdrop, a team of high school teachers, principals, college administrators, business persons, and community organizers came together to address a basic goal: To support and enrich the learning experiences of undocumented Latino high school students so that they can excel in their academic development and realize their college dreams. Founding board member, Paul Burkholder, summed the goal even more succinctly as helping the students to be the best that they can be.

The effort quickly expanded to developing opportunities for increasing the likelihood of college access through enriched academic preparation, and increasing the likelihood of college success through the supportive relationships of near-peer mentoring. Two individuals spearheading this effort, Emily Riehl, a community organizer of Virginia Organizing, and Sandy Mercer, a high school teacher of Harrisonburg High School, reached out to Dr. Peter Kaufman to join the team.

By 2011, Peter’s success with Scholars Latino Initiative at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was already a matter of record. In 2003, Peter began working with his colleagues to develop pathways to college for first-generation immigrant Latino students from communities surrounding UNC. By 2009, the effort expanded to become one the largest service-learning initiatives on the campus, and the flagship program of UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives. Peter’s dedication to social justice, belief in immigrant learners as scholars, and faith in the promise of supportive relationships between high school students and their college student mentors is a defining characteristic of SLI. When SV-SLI expanded its service to Handley High School in Winchester, VA, Peter would drive several hours from Richmond to serve as the instructing university professor for their SLI Early College Seminar. Peter served on the board through 2014, and is currently continuing the fight for college access by initiating a much needed SLI program with the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA.

The members of SV-SLI’s founding team worked tirelessly to develop its place at Harrisonburg High School and the community, and to apply for status as a 501(c)(3) organization. Success would not have been possible without the collaboration and commitment of Tracey Shaver, school principal of Harrisonburg High School, Dr. Scott Kizner, Superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Pat Litner, Assistant Superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, and Paul Burkholder, a Winchester businessperson and champion of local fundraising. Paul tirelessly assumed the role of board chair for six years.

Other individuals that I would come to know as the founding team were no less significant. Phil Helmuth, former executive director of development at Eastern Mennonite University, helped cultivate relations on that campus such that EMU would become SV-SLI’s first partnering institution. Isabel Castillo, an EMU alumnus and nationally recognized activist nurtured SLI’s commitment to an ethic of social justice in the face of social injustice. Richard “Dick” Gardner cultivated relations with Harrisonburg businesspersons, and kept my academic ramblings in check. Kirk Moyers and Laura Feichtinger McGrath found every single resource and opportunity available from Harrisonburg City Public Schools, and kept the team abreast of developing and ongoing initiatives that might impact our success. By 2013, Tom Robb came on board as the instructing teacher and program coordinator at Handley High School, while Maggie McCampbell Lien served as the college mentoring coordinator at Handley’s partner institution, Shenandoah University. In 2014, Hannah Bowman Hrasky stepped into the very big shoes left by Sandy Mercer, and has since been my closest co-author.

My own role began in 2012, when I pushed myself onto a conversation between Emily, Sandy, and Kirk at a local coffee shop. I had recently met Kirk, but Emily and Sandy were strangers. I commented on a research article on Hispanic students that Emily had open in front of her, and Sandy just blurted “Do you know anyone at JMU who might be willing to help us find mentors?” I looked at her and said, “Yeah. Me.” I soon began to recruit undergraduate Latino students from James Madison University’s Centennial Scholar’s program to be SLI’s first cohort of college student mentors

Sandy and I worked with that initial cohort of three high school sophomores–Willy, Raul, and Dulce–and JMU college mentors–Luis, Sergio, and Andrea. We added five more students and mentors in 2013. That year, SLI also initiated its program in Winchester. We added another five students to the Harrisonburg group in 2014, ten in 2015, eight in 2016, and will be inducting eight more at the start of the 2017-18 school year. Tom and Maggie have similarly experienced growth in Winchester over the years.

SLI’s status as a non-profit fundraising organization has seen amazing growth and success. Many committed board members have joined the team–Sandra, Brent, Ryan, Russ, and John. We developed the SLI College Award of up to $5000 per student, and the $1000 SLI Computer Award, affectionately nicknamed “the Riehl Deal” in recognition of Emily’s service to SLI. We added the SLI Dual Enrollment support program to help students meet some of the tuition costs of college dual enrollment courses. We’ve cultivated strong relationships with EMU, Shenandoah University, Bridgewater College, Blue Ridge Community College, and JMU. These institutions have welcomed our SLI students and have collaborated to reach out to other underserved students in our community.

The continuation of SLI’s story is told through the lives and relationships of our students. Dulce earned her A.A. while still in high school, and recently graduated from George Mason University with her Bachelor of Arts degree. Raul attends EMU, and works alongside Willy as a youth leader for Young Life ministry. Maria C. also earned her A.A. from Blue Ridge Community while in high school, and is now studying at EMU toward a nursing career. Kenia served as a Spanish interpreter for civic programs throughout the Harrisonburg community, and is joining Jose and Alicia at Blue Ridge Community College. Ninoska earned scholarships from Harrisonburg Rotary and from Big Brothers/Big Sisters for her outstanding community service. Maria G. was awarded the distinguished Bowman Scholarship, and has enrolled at JMU, where Kelly is a JMU Centennial Scholar. Lupe declined her award from the national Esperanza Fund so that she could take advantage of the near full scholarship award earned from Bridgewater College. She’ll join her college mentor, Jasmine.

~ Carlos Alemán