“It’s raw. It’s real. And it’s happening,” said Diana Urieta, as Latin dance music wafts from the room next door.
She continues while swaying to the rhythmic footsteps and student laughter, “We really are targeting the whole family. That’s the core of our program. It will always be the core of our program.”
As the national program director for The Together for a Better Education Program (Juntos para una Mejor Educación), Urieta – along with North Carolina Program Director Juana Hernandez and a slew of NC State University partners and volunteers – aims to help Latino high school students and their families navigate the challenging road to higher education. “I didn’t have the tools and resources to learn about higher education and a lot of our students don’t have that, so it definitely hits home,” said Hernandez, “Just to see the growth of these students. It’s amazing.”
That growth comes from the four main objectives of the Juntos program:
- Increase family engagement that leads to students’ educational success
- Increase the sense of belonging among Latino students and families in their schools and communities
- Increase Latino student success by improving student attendance and grades, and achieving high school graduation
- Increase the percentage of Latino students attending higher education
Developed at NC State, the Juntos program has expanded to 11 additional states in an effort to combat an alarming statistic: Hispanics in the U.S. continue to have the highest high school dropout rate. After continual mentoring throughout the school year, the Juntos program culminates in the summer with their academy, this year themed “Juntos – We Discover”.
The 9th Juntos Academy was hosted at NC State from June 18-22 and provided 55 students from six counties with vital discovery experiences, helping them shape their understanding of the opportunities available in higher education. Students heard from representatives of the many colleges at NC State and learned about financial aid opportunities. They also participated in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) projects, including health and wellness activities.
“It’s been pretty fun and exciting because we’re learning about colleges – how to apply to them and scholarships. It’s very helpful,” said Nancy Trejo, an 11th grader at the Juntos Academy. She’s considering joining the military as part of her journey to higher education and says the confidence to believe in her future came about through her experience at Juntos. “Some people had doubts. People think they might not be smart enough… they feel like they’re not enough,” she said, “Now, since Juntos, I’ve become more confident. I’m just more open.”
NC State student interns and volunteers from the Goodnight Scholars Program partnered with Juntos to lead the academy students through a STEAM-based project. The Juntos Academy students were tasked with building free mini-libraries to take back to their communities. Together with the NC State students, they gained new perspectives and opened safe spaces for conversation, “With everything going on in our society for these students – college students and high school students – to come together and have real conversations about real issues that are happening,” said Urieta, “They really get to pour into the lives of 12 students.”
Holly Ellwanger, the Juntos program coordinator for St. Stephens high school in Catawba County, says Juntos is vital for her students, “It’s given a safe place for the students to explore their academic opportunities, to build community amongst themselves, to become a support system among themselves,” she said, “It’s made academics cool. It’s ok to dream. It’s ok to have these goals and they know they don’t have to do it alone. They have a support system in place.”
The Juntos program started changing lives more than a decade ago as part of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dr. Andrew Benka and Cintia Aguilar wrote a six-week workshop curriculum for Latino families and later became co-developers of the Juntos program, along with Urieta. The program now includes four components: Family Engagement, Juntos 4-H Clubs, Success Coaching and Mentoring, and Summer Academy. The NC State Juntos leadership has trained 12 states to implement the program, all while being 100 percent grant funded.
Through hard work, Juntos and other programs across the nation have helped to keep Hispanic students from dropping out of high school – but they need your help.
“We’re growing at a rate we can’t handle with the resources we have here in North Carolina,” said Hernandez, “This is our baby. This is NC State’s baby. So we have to nurture that and take care of that.”