Before entering Benjamin Franklin High School, Carmen Colón—like every 8th grader in New Orleans—had to pass an entrance exam. Her other choice was to attend a private school—and pay annual tuition as high as $30,000.
For Colón, like many young Latinos in her community, that was no choice at all. Now a high school senior who hopes to major in biochemistry in college and possibly study abroad, Colón has long been a high academic achiever. But many of her peers were unaware that they had to take the entrance exam—and many others were unprepared. Colón saw classmates fall behind in STEM studies and, too often, drop out of school altogether.
“It is important to me to change that,” Colón said. “Everyone should have equal access to higher education without worrying about finances or language barriers.”
Colón has a plan to help her community. She wants to create workshops in Spanish and English that offer STEM resources to Latino students. This summer, she developed and presented that blueprint as her final project for Caminos Al Futuro, a pre-college and residential summer program at George Washington University. The program is sponsored by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ (CCAS) Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, which was founded through the philanthropy of former congressman and current Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert Cisneros, BA ’94, and his wife Jacki Cisneros.
With 12 other Latino high school students—all rising seniors who are committed to service and leadership within their communities—Colón recently spent three weeks in Washington, D.C., at the GW campus. The group examined the social, economic and political transformations affecting Hispanic/Latino communities in a college-like environment.
The Caminos students received a first-hand view of policymaking in the nation’s capital with visits to Congress, government agencies and leading nonprofits. The program also included lectures and small-group meetings with university professors and national Latino leaders.
“Caminos al Futuro stood out to me because it was made for Latinos by Latinos,” Colón said. “It offered an insider view on Latinos in the U.S. as well as unique perspectives of other peers coming from a plethora of different backgrounds.”
The Caminos program is designed to help prepare outstanding young Latino students to enroll—and thrive—in top colleges, said Elizabeth Vaquera, the executive director of the Cisneros Institute and CCAS associate professor of sociology and public policy & public administration.
At the Caminos closing ceremony on July 21, Gilbert Cisneros encouraged students–along with families and loved ones who attended the event—to seek out broad educational opportunities and push back against obstacles to success.
“We need to do more to help these kids find their way to college,” said Cisneros, who came to GW to major in political science on an ROTC scholarship and was the first in his family to attend college. “I want them to have the same experience that I had.”
The Caminos students met with Congresswoman Linda Sánchez (D-CA) at her office on Capitol Hill; visited the White House, Pentagon and Supreme Court; and took a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They took part in a three-credit college-level course that focused on Latinos in the United States and a writing class geared toward the college applications process held by Cisneros Institute leadership.
Throughout the summer, Vaquera noted that everyone from GW faculty to members of Congress were impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and commitment. “Keep up the energy you brought here to the program,” she told the students. “There will always be obstacles, but you have shown us that you are all resilient, capable young people who are already leaders, and will continue to grow into your leadership.”
Leading to Success
For their final projects, Caminos participants created action plans tackling problems in their own communities. Rachel Fils-Aime designed a college fair and a series of workshops to introduce students in her rural Minnesota county to wider educational options. “There is a mentality [for students] to stay within my area and not have bigger dreams,” she said. “That is something that I felt has held me back, and I don’t want other students to feel the same frustration.”
Brandon Santiago-Ramos drew on his Olathe, Kansas, community’s love of soccer to plan a county-wide tournament supported by local Latino-owned businesses and featuring educators and nonprofits with information on college admissions.
“I found that many Latino families and students are unaware of the resources and opportunities available to them in Olathe,” he said. “And soccer has been a passion of mine since I was a child, so that was a no brainer.”
CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck commended the students’ accomplishments and encouraged them to continue inspiring their communities.
“It is my hope that you, our next generation of leaders, take what you have learned through this program back to your schools and communities,” he said. “Tell your peers that there is a home for them at universities befitting of their academic achievements and capabilities. Tell them a university is a place for people who dream of changing the world—and who, like you, have the leadership skills to make it happen.”
As the Caminos scholars and families prepared to return to their hometowns, Cisneros urged them to expand their ambitions and think of their potential as limitless. “Ask yourself: ‘What else is out there for me?’” he said. “‘How can I challenge myself to be my very best?’”