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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Empowering Educators to Support Latino Youth

 A Review of the 2016 Escalera Training

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR

The 2016 Escalera training at NCLR’s Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Last month, the Escalera program brought 31 educators to NCLR’s Washington, D.C. headquarters for a three-day training on how to best prepare students for college and beyond. The Escalera educators are part of the NCLR Affiliate Network, which includes schools and community-based organizations that are grantees of the Escalera, Early Escalera, and Escalera STEM programs. The goal of the training was to provide Escalera teachers with better resources to implement the Escalera curricula in their schools and communities.

2At the Escalera training, Affiliates discussed their current work, explored the college-going process, and provided feedback on how to improve the program. For Early Escalera instructors, this was their first opportunity to meet and discuss the new curriculum. It was also a great opportunity for them to meet with other educators, such as the Escalera STEM team, who have been implementing their program for over two years.

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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.

What Resilient Latino Youth Are Teaching Us about Adversity

It is hard to deny how critical young Latinos are to the future of the U.S. A quick look at the numbers reveals why:

  • At 17 percent of the population, Latinos make up the largest minority in the United States.
  • Latino youth under the age of 18 represent 25 percent of the nation’s child population.
  • Within the next 20 years, one in three American youth will be Latino.


This demographic change has been well under way for several years, resulting in a large body of research devoted to examining the disparities and inequalities that plague youth in communities of color. But what about youth who overcome these hardships—poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and ethnic discrimination, among others—to achieve success? What are the contributing personal, environmental, and cultural factors that lead a substantial number of resilient youth to learn from adversity and excel?

In a new report, Resilient Latino Youth: In Their Own Words, Dr. Patricia Foxen, Deputy Director of Research at NCLR, takes a closer look at the concept of “resilience” through the bicultural lens of second-generation Latinos who have achieved success in the face of extreme adversity.

The report focuses on the personal traits of resilient young Latino men and women as well as the familial and environmental factors that have helped them succeed. Through in-depth interviews and first-person narratives, the featured youth define the factors that have helped them persevere. The report ultimately underscores the need for policies and programs that boost resilience as part of an overall approach to reach at-risk youth.

Freddy’s Story

One youth in the report whose story exemplifies how the right programs can transform lives is that of “Freddy.” The 20-year-old East Los Angeles native is currently studying electrical engineering at California State University, Northridge, but his road there was a difficult one marked by alcoholism, gangs, poverty, and the difficulties of living in a mixed-immigration-status household.

Freddy possesses a number of personality characteristics common to resilient Latino youth: strong intelligence, curiosity, and adept interpersonal skills. The report explores how these very traits, in addition to adverse circumstances at home and in his surrounding environment, led him to engage in risky behavior. In Freddy’s case, it was gang membership made possible by his older sister and cousin.

His association with these gangs eventually led to an altercation with police at an amusement park that landed him in jail when he was just 14. Freddy was facing some serious prison time, but his parents successfully advocated for a reduced sentence of six months of probation. Despite the lighter punishment, the experience was pivotal in a downward spiral that would last through high school.

It wasn’t until Freddy’s exposure to the NCLR Escalera Program that he began to thrive once again, just like he did before he turned to gangs. With the help and support of Escalera staff, Freddy applied for college and scholarships. He started to participate in extracurricular activities that included community service. The Escalera Program also took Freddy to Washington, DC, where he witnessed President Obama deliver a speech and he spoke directly with elected officials. There is no doubt that Freddy’s participation in a program that nurtured his resilience was instrumental in changing his life.

Resilient Youth Need Strong Policies and Programs

FosterYouthThis snapshot of Freddy’s story is but one of several highlighted in the report. All of them help make the case for programs that encourage second-generation Latino youth to view their bicultural identity as an asset and balance their two worlds pragmatically. Policymakers and foundations could show their support for these youth by putting a focus on culturally sensitive, strength-based preventative approaches that incorporate caring mentors, skill building, and a holistic approach to youth development.

But it is not enough to nurture resilience: we must also ensure that policies are in place to produce broader structural changes that lessen the chances of these youth, their families, and their communities experiencing systemic aggressions. Policy solutions that reduce risk factors for poor communities of color are crucial in this regard.

Implementing such policies and supporting strong community-based programs would go a long way in helping this critical segment of the Latino community build resilient identities. These identities will equip them with all they need to contribute to America’s success.

Students: Take Advantage of Opportunities to Find the Career You Love

By David Castro, Senior Web Editor, NCLR

Escalera Alum, Sergio Valenzuela

Escalera Program alum Sergio Valenzuela

Going to college was not in the cards for Sergio Valenzuela early in his high school career. That was until he accompanied a friend to a meeting of the NCLR Escalera Program: Taking Steps to Success, operated by NCLR Affiliate AltaMed Health Services Corporation at James A. Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles.

“I became involved with [Escalera] through a friend of mine. We’d hang out a little bit after school, and one day he told me he had to go to the library to meet with the case manager of this program his mom had signed him up for. So I went with him. They asked me if I wanted to be part of the program, I said ‘sure,’ and the rest is history,” recalls Valenzuela, a first-generation Mexican American born and raised in East L.A.

Through the program, Valenzuela was exposed to a different path. “Every event that they would take us to, it made me realize how important and impactful the program was,” he explained. “They took us to college campuses, which is something I never had the opportunity to do before. They helped us with college applications and financial aid, guiding us through the entire process.”

Valenzuela also credited his experiences with the Escalera Program as a junior and senior, as well as the people he met at the NCLR Annual Conference those years, with helping him grow as a professional. Yet it was his case manager, Diana Hernandez, who had the biggest impact on helping him choose a career as a leader for his community.

“She told me she had really enjoyed her studies,” said Valenzuela about Hernandez’s experiences within her own major. “It exposed her to different areas—political, social, economic—and that made me want to find out more about it,” he says. Valenzuela would go on to graduate from UCLA in 2013 with a dual major in international development and Spanish.

His work with the Escalera Program helped him land an internship with AltaMed during his senior year at UCLA. He now works there as the community relations and internships coordinator. He manages interactions with other local and national organizations and works to expand internship opportunities for medical students in different industries. In the near future, he plans to attend graduate school.

Valenzuela has a message to high school students exposed to programs such as Escalera. “I would let them know that along their lives they will come across different opportunities,” he says. “The opportunities they take advantage of will shape the people they’ll be in the future.”

“In my case, the AltaMed Escalera Program definitely played a big role in shaping the professional that I consider myself to be today. And this is not an opportunity students would want to pass on.”

Find out more about AltaMed and the NCLR Escalera Program.

Come Join Our Escalera STEM Team!

We’re looking for a great person to join our Escalera team. Could that be you? We’re in the process of finding the right program manager who can manage the expansion and the enhancement of our Escalera program. If you’ve got a passion for education and you want to serve the Latino community, take a look at the job description below and follow the instructions for applying.

Good luck!

Job Announcement: Escalera STEM Program Manager