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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Advocates discuss opportunities and challenges in career and technical education

Career and technical education programs in high schools today offer training in careers ranging from STEM fields to marketing, sales, and service. Their  continued improvement and expansion is important to the Latino community.

Career and Technical Education

On January 10, UnidosUS and the National Urban League brought together researchers, policymakers, advocates, and practitioners whose common goal is to ensure that state education plans equally prepare all students with 21st-century skills.

One of those areas of focus is in career and technical education, or CTE.

But we’re not talking about the vocational education of years past that channeled certain populations of students into skilled trades and prevented them from working toward academic degrees. CTE today provides students with academic and technical skills, along with training for a range of industry certifications, and postsecondary certificates and degrees. CTE offers 16 career clusters ranging from STEM fields to marketing, sales, and service.

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The Tejano Center is Training the Next Generation of STEM Leaders

 Guest blog post by Giovanni Escobedo, Youth Advisory Committee Member, NCLR

Our children grow up in a society that demands expertise in everything. Deciding to sit back and rely solely on learning from textbooks is not enough for their overall development. We live in the age of specialization, and children cannot afford to miss out on this window of opportunity and be left behind. The Tejano Center’s Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success in Brownsville, Texas is working hard to address that problem by providing educational offerings in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields to the children of South Texas with the help NCLR’s CHISPA initiative.

At the Tejano Center, kids meet twice a week to work on science lessons and to learn what it takes to become scientists. In groups of about six students from various grade levels, they collaborate to perform experiments while simultaneously strengthening their interpersonal and leadership skills. Their conversations across the table are a sign that they understand and enjoy the lesson—and that they have mastered the complex scientific concepts to the point where they can explain them to each other in a way that is easy to understand.

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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.

Underwater Dreams Inspire Latino Youth

Lorenzo Santillan, a student featured in the documentary Underwater Dreams, was a featured guest at NCLR’s Family STEM Day this month. The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) was the setting for the daylong event and provided an opportunity to bring an awareness of the STEM field for parents and their children. More than 300 middle and high school students participated, along with their parents. Dr. Raul Reyna, Executive Director of UTSA’s Prefreshman Engineering Program, opened the event and introduced keynote speaker Santillan.

In his keynote speech, Santillan spoke about the barriers he and his fellow students had to overcome to be successful in school and beyond. He praised his family and teachers who helped him along the way to get to where he is now as an enterprenuer and a speaker.

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After the keynote address the students participated in several STEM-related breakout sessions, presented by UTSA students and professors. Many of the presentations featured robotics programs from several local science academies. These hands-on sessions allowed the participants to interact with people directly involved in the STEM field.

After the students participated in two rotations of STEM activities they were treated to a special screening of Underwater Dreams. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with Santillan, which included questions about how he became interested in robotics and other challenges he faced during the competition, which is the subject of the documentary. Afterward, students had an opportunity to meet and speak with Santillan.

We thank Lorenzo Santillan, Dr. Reyna, and the entire UTSA Engineering Department for hosting this wonderful family event!

To learn more about NCLR’s youth STEM work, go to nclr.org/issues/education

Meet the Future of Latino STEM Professionals: Enrique Alba

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 Enrique Alba, a senior at George I. Sanchez Charter School in Houston.

Enrique photo_noncroppedI’m Enrique Alba. I’m 18 years old. I was born in Houston but my parents were born in Mexico. I’m currently a senior at George I. Sanchez Charter School. In my spare time I like to draw and paint portraits.

I got involved in the NCLR Escalera program during my junior year after my teacher recommended the class. My favorite part about the program is that you get to experience college tours. I enjoy getting a better understanding about how college is important and the guidance offered throughout my senior year has been invaluable.

NCLR Escalera STEM has supported me by teaching me how to manage my college budget, and showing me what to expect during my first year of college. Thanks to Escalera I have already applied to four different Tier 1 universities and will be making my decision on which one to attend once my financial aid packages have been determined.

As an artist, I have learned that while STEM has predominately been known as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, the new trend is to now call it STEAM. The introduction of Arts is something that has really interested me as I have begun to build my portfolio and hope to study Studio Art after high school.

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

The NCLR Innovation Lab: Inspiring Entrepreneurship in Latino Youth

Latino students make up 25 percent of the student population but only about 7 percent of the STEM workforce. One way we’re working to increase that 7 percent figure is through our Innovation Lab.

Earlier this month, STEM educators from ten different program sites traveled to our headquarters in Washington to participate in Innovation Lab, a two-day training on the new STEM curriculum inspired by the film Underwater Dreams.

Underwater Dreams

Underwater Dreams tells the story of a group of low-income Latino high school students and how they won a prestigious robotics competition. The goal of the NCLR Innovation Lab is for Latino students to identify a genuine need in their community and to develop a tech-based solution to address that gap or that challenge.

Juliana Ospina Cano, NCLR STEM Manager, and Jose Rodriguez, NCLR Regional Director of Education for Texas and the Southwest Region, organized and led the NCLR Innovation Lab training.

“We can see that there is a significant gap in STEM education. As a result, NCLR has developed a series of K–12 programs to encourage more Latino students to consider pursuing a STEM career,” said Juliana Ospina Cano.

The educators

The first day of the Innovation Lab was dedicated to introducing the educators to the curriculum and STEM mindset. By using Underwater Dreams as inspiration, our Affiliates will tap into the resilient Latino spirit to problem-solve and develop solutions for challenges faced in the community.

“I work in K–5 classrooms teaching engineering and 95 percent of our students are Hispanic. I am very excited to be here to bring more opportunities to them,” said Lauren Levy, STEM Specialist at Synergy Charter Elementary School. “I think Underwater Dreams will inspire our students by motivating them and it could lead to grassroots movements in our community.”

On the second day, the teachers presented the lesson plans they created for the curriculum the day before. They were evaluated on their delivery and received collective feedback, which participants found to be especially valuable.

“I serve grades 9–12. The mock lessons have been very helpful because I am able to see how other people interpret the same curriculum and how it is flexible,” said Martin Barrera, Instructor at Los Angeles Leadership Academy High School. “The educators in the room have been very supportive.”

Next steps: our students and comunidad

The educators will return to their communities and begin implementing the NCLR Innovation Lab program. Ospina Cano and Rodriguez will follow up with regular communication and professional development.

“Our primary focus is for these educators to experience success in the implementation of the NCLR Innovation Lab,” said Rodriguez.

Empowering Students and Educators through Service Learning

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR 

Our service-learning education program, Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA), is tackling serious issues. The goal of the fifth annual CASA Institute this year focused on how to equip middle school youth with the appropriate skills to identify a need in the Latino community and then develop an academic service plan to address that need.

casa 1

Students from seven states gathered at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month to take on this challenge. And, thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the Institute was able to host attendees from 12 different educational programs in Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Tennessee, Maryland, California, and Florida. Among them were students and teachers from East Austin College Prep, Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, to name a few.

The Cultural Bag

A major part of the CASA Institute included lessons on the service-learning cycle as well as an array of cultural activities. One such activity included the Cultural Bag. To highlight cultural awareness, students were tasked with creating a bag filled with phrases and drawings that displayed their interpretations of their own identity and culture.

“A cultural bag is something that each of us carries around all the time. The content of our bag defines who we are,” said Magdalena Mireles, NCLR California Regional Office Manager.

“Your race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, level of education, or religion are all traits that can go in your bag.” Mireles led the youth track in this year’s Institute.

As students filled their bags with their identity traits, they began to think about how their culture shaped their personality and life experiences.

Fun and Robotics

 Los Angeles made a perfect setting for a movie screening. Attendees were treated to a private viewing of the highly acclaimed documentary Underwater Dreams, written and directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña.

Underwater Dreams tells the story of sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and ended up defeating engineering powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their competition. Not only were these boys only in high school when they entered the college competition but they were also living in poverty and faced many struggles to which several CASA attendees could relate.

(Click on the photos to enlarge)

Drawing on inspiration from the film, students were guided by DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls in building their own robots. DIY Girls works with young girls and focuses on helping them be successful in technology and engineering. One of their founders is also a Latina!

The interactive lesson guided students in using a motor, a battery, and a container to build a motorized robot that they could then take home.

The CASA Institute was a great learning experience for both students and educators. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and for many it was there first time visiting Los Angeles. The change of setting and the new activities students and teachers participated in left them motivated and inspired.

“Super excited to see all the great ideas we will bring back to school!” said Angelica Lara of East Austin College Prep.

We’re hopeful educators like Lara left Los Angeles ready to take the steps and use the lessons they learned to support their students throughout the year in engaging with the CASA curriculum.