Students talk about how UnidosUS’s Escalera program has changed their lives

Beyond helping kids get ready for college and future careers, the UnidosUS Escalera program is about community, friendship, and support. Here are a few stories from students who have participated in this life-changing program.

UnidosUS Escalera

By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

In 2001, UnidosUS (then the National Council of La Raza), created the Escalera Program: Taking Steps to Success. Through the Escalera program, high school juniors and seniors learn about the often-daunting college application process, and engage with events and activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Escalera students are usually Latino, first generation, and from traditionally marginalized communities. The program helps these students connect with a familia of peers from similar backgrounds.

To date, Escalera has served more than 1,700 young people across 37 Affiliates in 18 states. The Escalera program is funded by UPS.

Here are a few stories from students who have participated in the program. Their words show that Escalera is all about community, friendship, and support.

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Finding the power of family at home and in the classroom

Sonia Gonzalez—a participant of UnidosUS’s Escalera and Líderes Avanzando programs—credits her East LA upbringing and her family’s perseverance and compassion for guiding her path to college and beyond

At center: Sonia Gonzalez and; UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía pose with guests at our 2017 Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. <em>Photo: Sonia Gonzalez</em>

Sonia Gonzalez Photo: Sonia Gonzalez

By Jennifer Wennig for UnidosUS

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor has said, “Remember that no one succeeds alone. Never walk alone in your future paths.” This is a sentiment that captures the experiences of another strong Latina named Sonia.

Growing up in East LA, Sonia Gonzalez was determined to pursue higher education as early as in elementary school. Planning to go to college was not an “option” but a “requirement” in Sonia’s mind.

It was an ambition rooted in the lessons given by her family, who have provided lifelong examples of perseverance and service.

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NCLR Goes to NASA for 2016 STEM Youth Summit

With Space City as our backdrop, NCLR recently welcomed Latino students and teachers from our national Escalera network to Houston for the 2016 NCLR STEM Youth Summit, generously supported by Shell and Chevron. Young Latinos had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines through a variety of hands-on activities and educational workshops. The STEM Youth Summit was not just a weekend of science exploration, but of STEM empowerment.

The goal for the NCLR Líderes team was to create a space where Latino youth could freely tap into their potential and see STEM careers as realistic, attainable goals. The team did this through exposure to Mobile Oil field exhibits, a NASA tram tour, as well as a screening of the documentary Underwater Dreams, which included remarks from Oscar Vazquez, a STEM-advocate and U.S. Army veteran who is featured in the film.

During the STEM Life Map workshop, Latino engineers shared their individual journey into STEM and offered participants a chance to learn from their experiences. Their stories shed light on some of the structural and academic barriers that continue to plague the Latino STEM pipeline, as well as the cultural ones that often go unaddressed. One speaker, Stephanie Garza, commented on the lack of support she received at home when she first mentioned wanting to become an engineer. Though her family members doubted her ability to thrive in a male-dominant field, Garza pushed on and went on to become a power solutions engineer. Her story and those of others echoed the power of strength and perseverance.

We rounded off our first night in Houston with a celebratory dinner where we welcomed Vazquez to join us. Before a crowd of more than 120 students and teachers, he recounted his remarkable story of entering—and beating the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—in a national underwater robotics competition with three of his high school friends. He also spoke at length about the tremendous hardship he faced as an undocumented student. Vazquez noted the need to broaden opportunities for all Latinos regardless of their immigration status, and urged Latino students to dream as big as he once did.

Meet the Future of Latino STEM Professionals: Rosa Reyes

The Lone Star State is the setting for NCLR’s 2016 STEM Youth Summit this January at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The STEM Youth Summit, generously supported by Shell Oil, is designed to expose Latino youth to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines through hands-on exploratory activities and engagement. At the event, students will have the opportunity to work closely with Latino STEM professionals who seek to increase the number of underrepresented youth in STEM fields. Participants will also have the opportunity to collaborate with other youth from our national Escalera network. As the Summit draws nearer, we’ll be featuring some of the remarkable young people, in their own words, who look forward to attending this year’s event. Today’s spotlight is on Rosa Reyes, a senior at George I Sanchez High School.     

Rosa Reyes_blogsizeHi, I’m Rosa. I’m 17 years old and both of my parents are from Mexico, but I was born here. I want to major in Nursing and minor in Finance. One of my hobbies is photography.

I got involved in the NCLR Escalera program when I was a junior during my second semester. My teacher, Mr.Carillo, was going into classes and recruiting for the Escalera Class and I signed up. My favorite part of the NCLR Escalera STEM program is that we get to experience college tours that give us better understanding about the university and what they have to offer.

NCLR Escalera STEM has supported me by showing me how to manage my budget, calculate cost of attendance, apply for college, register for ACT/SAT test, and more. I did not know what STEM was before joining this program. I have learned not only what STEM means, but also that my career goals and interests fall within STEM fields.

From participating in the program I had the opportunity to meet professors, industry professionals and gain valuable experience during my accounting internship. Learning how to approach my parents with my plans of attending a university away from home has also given me the confidence that I really can make a difference in the statistical boundaries that Hispanic women face within STEM fields. I will highly recommend this program to my friends.

Meet the Future of Latino STEM Professionals: Damián Aragonez

The Lone Star State is the setting for NCLR’s 2016 STEM Youth Summit this January at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The STEM Youth Summit, generously supported by Shell Oil, is designed to expose Latino youth to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines through hands-on exploratory activities and engagement. At the event, students will have the opportunity to work closely with Latino STEM professionals who seek to increase the number of underrepresented youth in STEM fields. Participants will also have the opportunity to collaborate with other youth from our national Escalera network. As the Summit draws nearer, we’ll be featuring some of the remarkable young people, in their own words, who look forward to attending this year’s event. Today’s spotlight is on Damián Aragonez, a student at West Jefferson High School and Puentes New Orleans in Louisiana.

DamianAragonezHi! My name is Damián Aragonez. I like to be outgoing, positive, and a great friend. I am Mexican, but was born in Galveston, Texas. I love that my culture includes plenty of food and music, not to mention motivation. My hobbies are listening to music, playing sports such as soccer and football, and especially spending time gaming with my little brother.

I originally became involved with NCLR STEM as an official member through my sister, Jessica Aragonez, who was in NCLR STEM last year and is now in college. My favorite part of the program is the communication that goes on in the program and having snacks is fun too. NCLR STEM has supported me by keeping me on track and broadening my vision of responsibility.

I knew about STEM before joining this program because I wanted to be an engineer. However, the NCLR STEM program has given me more knowledge and support in finding opportunities in STEM fields. I would absolutely recommend this program to my friends because it helps you set your goals and sets you on a better path.

Meet the Future of Latino STEM Professionals: Kenia Cruz

The Lone Star State is the setting for NCLR’s 2016 STEM Youth Summit in Houston this coming January at the Johnson Space Center. The STEM Youth Summit, generously supported by Shell Oil, is designed to expose Latino youth to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines through hands-on exploratory activities and engagement. At the event, students will have the opportunity to work closely with Latino STEM professionals who seek to increase the number of underrepresented youth in STEM fields. Participants will also have the opportunity to collaborate and work with other youth from our national Escalera network. As the Summit draws nearer, we’ll be featuring some of the remarkable young people, in their own words, who look forward to attending this year’s event. Today’s spotlight is on Kenia Cruz, a student at West Jefferson High School in New Orleans, La.

Kenia photoHi! I’m Kenia Cruz, a proud Latina.

I’m from La Ceiba, Honduras and moved to New Orleans last year. My culture is full of food, fiestas, and of course, la familia. Spending time with my family and wanting them to be proud of me is my goal.

I got involved in Escalera STEM at school, when my counselor talked to me about it. My favorite part of the program is preparing myself for my future and making new friends. I think that what is fun about this program is always learning and doing something new each day.

Escalera STEM has showed me that being Latino does not have to stop me from achieving my goals. I did not know what STEM was before this program. I have learned that STEM applies to many careers and I have learned more about each field and the careers available.

Check back here for more spotlights on NCLR STEM Youth Summit participants. You can visit for more information on youth-oriented programs.

Pushing for STEM Careers Beyond the Code

There has been much talk recently about the growing importance of STEM in the country’s economy. In 2013 the White House unveiled a five-year plan to make STEM an educational priority at the federal level. At the community level, NCLR has joined with Affiliates to expose Latino youth and families to STEM education programs with the goal of expanding the pipeline of talent into those careers.

These are important developments. The numbers present the challenge clearly: nearly one in five American workers are Latino, but fewer than one in 10 Americans employed in the STEM workforce are Latino. Companies such as Google and Facebook have made diversity a key goal while admitting they have a long way to go as only a very small percentage of their workforces are Latino or Black.

But the fact the conversation is happening at all is important to Karla Monterroso, Vice President of Programs at CODE2040, a San Francisco-based organization that helps Black and Latino students become successful participants in the innovation economy.

“I think the combination of the release of the data [on STEM participation]… and several stories in the news of what the tech industry has been like for underrepresented people has made this a conversation that people are really engaged with, and for which people are being held accountable for the first time,” she says.

But it’s not just about getting the proverbial foot in the door—or hand in the code. Another challenge is to make sure Latinos and other underrepresented groups are given the opportunity to take on upper management and executive roles in the STEM industry. Monterroso—who was a panelist in the “Strengthening Families through Technology” town hall at the 2015 NCLR Annual Conference—has seen how these young employees are able to thrive when given these opportunities.

According to Monterroso, companies find that students going through the CODE2040 have both the technical skills to get the job done and the emotional intelligence to be successful mentors and leaders.

“Our students are often coming from households in which they are a translator for their families and are taking on responsibilities that are above and beyond their age range,” Monterroso said. “That means they are used to being in roles in which they take great ownership and responsibility, and that happens at the company level all of the time.”

Applications for the next class of CODE2040 fellows can be found at

Escalera Program Graduate, Nicole Sanclemente, is Ready for the Future

By David Castillo, Digital Content Manager, NCLR

Through her involvement in our Escalera program at our Affiliate Center for Latino Progress, Sanclemente was awarded a $5,000 college scholarship generously donated by UPS.

Photo: Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission

Photo: Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission

When she was in grade school, Nicole Sanclemente was always very aware of the differences between herself and her classmates.

She was born in Connecticut and spent much of her early years in the state’s capital, Hartford. In the second grade, Nicole and her family moved to the small rural town of Marlborough, where her father had received a job offer at an elementary school. When Nicole started at her new school, she very quickly realized just how different things were going to be. As the only Latina at her school, Nicole did her best to fit in with the other students.

“I was always very different. Growing up in that, I wanted to fit in with everyone else,” said Nicole. “I tried to start doing the things everyone else did, buy the brands they did.”

Nicole also wore lots of “traditional clothing,” as she puts it, from her parent’s native Colombia. Her parents put a premium on bilingualism, so they insisted she learn Spanish first, which meant she had a slight accent when speaking English. These differences were inescapable. Yet the adversity she experienced in grade school would later become an asset when she applied to the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy (SMAS), back in Hartford. Nicole has always wanted to study medicine and the magnet school offered a program that was too enticing to pass up. Nicole was eventually accepted and began working toward her dream.

An added bonus of SMAS was its diverse student body, which Nicole found welcoming and refreshing.

“I started meeting people from all over the world. It was a very multicultural experience,” said Nicole. “I feel like I taught the kids at Marlborough a lot about my culture. I feel like that helped them become more culturally aware. They were four wonderful years.”

1273175_10153191078250507_1872325720_oLast year, Nicole also had the opportunity to attend our Annual Conference in Los Angeles as through her participation in our Escalera program at Center for Latino Progress.

See video on the Center for Latino Progress Facebook page of Nicole receiving her award at last year’s conference.


Nicole also wants to see a better Connecticut and to give back to her community. But first she has to complete her education. She graduated high school a few weeks ago and is now enjoying a well-deserved summer vacation. In the fall, the young Latina will start at her first year at the University of Connecticut where she will begin her studies in biology/premed. Ultimately, Nicole plans to go to medical school to begin her work on becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

She is especially grateful for all the support she has received, especially the UPS scholarship, which she said lifted a great weight off of her and her family.

“Coming from an immigrant family, we don’t have all the luxuries that other families do, but my parents always impressed upon us that no matter what it would take for them, that they would still help us pay for college because it’s a necessity in this country,” said Nicole. “This is a blessing… and another step toward my future.”

Congratulations, Nicole! The NCLR familia wishes you all the best in the fall and in the future!

Meet an Escalera Program Graduate

High school seniors are celebrating this month as they graduate high school and prepare for the next chapter in their lives. It’s an exciting time marked by hope and promise for what is to come.graco_escalera_1

At NCLR, we aim to foster the dreams of youth through programs that support their educational development. One is the Escalera Program, which promotes economic mobility for Latino youth by increasing educational attainment, career planning, and access to information about advanced careers.

This year, our California Regional Office had the pleasure of hosting an Escalera Program student, Graco Hernandez, as an intern during his last semester at Academia Avance, an NCLR Affiliate. Graco was a fine addition to the staff and provided much-needed assistance. Before he finished his internship, we talked with Graco about his time as an Escalera student, his plans in the fall, and his hopes for the future.

NCLR: How did you get involved with the Escalera Program? 

Graco: I came to Escalera as a student at Academia Avance, which is an NCLR Affiliate. The program was something to help me prepare for college, to help me know what I wanted to become. Escalera helped me become a well-rounded individual and it revealed to me stuff I knew and stuff I didn’t know about myself. For example, it told me that I enjoyed speaking and innovating. Another thing is that it helped cement the idea of going to college.

NCLR: How has your participation been instrumental to your success so far?

NCLR_GRACO_2Graco: I would have found another way [to get to college], but Escalera helped me get there faster than any other route. It helped streamline my education. Rather than vaguely looking around for something I was interested in, the Escalera Program said, “Hey, this is your personality, these are some of the things you do, why don’t you look at these professions?” It really helped open my eyes to take a look at those options. It sharpened my focus of what my career path could be.

NCLR: What are some of your favorite memories of the program?

Graco: It’s hard to say any one memory. Our teacher made the program really fun. It didn’t even feel like a class, even though it was the first one of the day. Being in a place that’s so supportive was one of my best experiences.

NCLR: What are your plans for the future?

Graco: I’m really interested in civic engagement and also acting. Escalera helped me cement the idea that I’d rather be out doing something than being cooped up in an office. This fall, I’m going to UC Irvine and will be double majoring in political science and drama.

NCLR: What are you looking forward to about college?

Graco: The independence. I’ve always been a go-getter. In college I feel like I’ll have the opportunity to seize more opportunities. Not to mention there will be lots of food, and I love food.

NCLR: What advice do you have for future Escalera students?

Graco: Keep an open mind. Some of the activities might seem frustrating at times, but it’s worth it. If you actually take the time to explore what’s being presented to you, you’ll see that it’s fun—and educational. It helps you grow as a person. It shows you that it’s not just a small world, that there are all kinds of schools that might have what you’re looking for.

NCLR: Parting thoughts?

Graco: I had the privilege of being an intern at NCLR and it was really inspirational. It’s also why I’m so interested in civic engagement. I hope to come back after college one day and maybe even work for NCLR!

How One Teacher Is Helping Kids Achieve Greatness

To commemorate Teacher Appreciation Week we caught up with Ruth Valdes, a teacher at Amigos for Kids, a Miami-based Affiliate, to find out what issues are on teachers’ minds. We also asked her about life as an Escalera instructor and how the program can help kids achieve success.


Ruth (front, far left) with other Escalera Affiliate instructors doing some Chicago sight-seeing after a long training day.

NCLR: When did Amigos for Kids become an Affiliate and why? What are the benefits?

Valdes: Amigos joined NCLR as an Affiliate in 2008 given the entity’s important advocacy work on behalf of Hispanics for over 40 years. Miami-Dade County has a diverse representation of the Hispanic population. Our mission is to reach Hispanic families throughout the country with our message of child abuse prevention. Being an Affiliate of NCLR has provided numerous opportunities to continue to create awareness and provide services to children and families.

One of the benefits is having been selected to implement NCLR’s Escalera Program. In March 2014, Amigos for Kids began the implementation at Mater Academy East High School. Amigos for Kids was excited to partner with Mater Academy East because it was an opportunity to provide further services for these students. Since implementation, the students have become leaders within the school. They have learned important skills, such as résumé-writing and interviewing. Additionally, they were given the opportunity to implement the skills they have learned through work internships. As a result, the students have become more responsible in terms of school work and extracurricular activities.

NCLR: How do you hope the Escalera Program will have a positive impact on the youth you serve?

Valdes: The youth population at Mater Academy East High School has a majority of Hispanic and low-income students. Most of the students live in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, which is predominantly Central American. The students at Mater who participate in the Escalera Program come from humble, hard-working families who want to see their children succeed as professionals.

I hope that by having participated in the Escalera Program, my students develop a sense of responsibility beyond the classroom walls and become active participants in our community in many diverse roles.

NCLR: What is your favorite part of working with the Escalera Program and with Amigos for Kids?

Valdes: The best part of working with the Escalera Program is the students, seeing their growth: watching them go from shy, hesitant students to assertive young adults who proudly flaunt their new strengths. Additionally, Amigos for Kids provided me the opportunity, along with two of my students and a parent, to attend NCLR’s 2014 Conference in Los Angeles. It was especially rewarding to witness the interaction of these students with other students and participants of the Conference and exchange ideas and views. They were able to travel, network, learn, and even meet the president of NCLR.

As an instructor, I also enjoyed the opportunity to network with other Escalera participants from around the country at the NCLR Conference and at the NCLR training hosted in Chicago in August 2014. It was clear that, as instructors, we had a lot in common!

NCLR: How would you describe the life of an Escalera instructor? What’s a daily schedule like? What is most challenging and rewarding?

Valdes: Our job is hectic but fulfilling. A daily schedule for me includes teaching all day, conducting an Escalera session after school, having discussions with the students about their concerns or what’s new, and responding to emails and calls from students who need a letter of recommendation or a job reference. I have to juggle many responsibilities and be extremely flexible. However, I also enjoy the invaluable reward of seeing the students make progress in so many ways.

NCLR: What is something you have learned about working with youth that you would like to share with other professionals?

Valdes: If I could share one thing that I have learned from working with young people in different settings, it is that there is a way to reach them. Working with the youth doesn’t have to be a fight; it’s not “us” versus “them.” It can be a win-win scenario. Getting to that point is not always easy, but it is very rewarding. Working with Escalera has been especially rewarding because I’ve had the opportunity to pay it forward and serve as a role model for Hispanic students. The biggest reward of the program has been the encouragement and confidence that it provides for the students. Escalera has enlightened the students to see possibilities, to the belief that si se puede!