Three Penn President’s Engagement Prize Winners to Create a Support Program for Latino High School Students

A passion and commitment to improve the lives of those in the Latino immigrant community unites three University of Pennsylvania seniors who have different majors.

As three of seven recipients of the 2017 President’s Engagement Prize, they now have the support necessary to help them translate their passion into a project with real impact.

Yaneli Arizmendi, Alexa Salas and Camilo Toro all volunteer at a local non-profit, the catalyst for their Prize-winning project, Lanzando Líderes (Launching Leaders).

The President’s Engagement Prize, founded by Penn President Amy Gutmann in 2014, will allow the three students to create a bilingual, community-based, after-school program for Latino high school students, partnering with Puentes de Salud (Bridges to Health) in South Philadelphia.

“The most thrilling part at the moment is to see the need in the community and to be able to do something about it,” said Arizmendi, in the School of Nursing at Penn.

“To see the opportunity there” said Salas, an urban studies major in the School of Arts & Sciences who plans to go to law school, “to see the potential of kids we work with at Puentes, and the way families come together and are so generous, it fills me with hope.”

The prize awards as much as $100,000 for the project development and $50,000 living stipend to each team member.

“A key component of the project is evaluating it constantly,” said Toro, a neuroscience major in the School of Arts & Sciences who plans to become a physician, “to make sure it is working and involving the community to guide the decisions that we make as we shape the program. We want to create and carve a sustainable path for the future so that it doesn’t stop after this year.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Antonia Villarruel, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, is the project mentor and will advise them throughout the year. She has long experience working with Latino teens and parents, and her research validated the project’s goals.

“We have to work on creating possibilities for our adolescents and help them understand the steps they need to follow whatever path they choose,” she said. “And for parents, to help them understand that they are a vital part of their children’s lives,” she said. “Once you have the aspiration, then you know how to plan for it. If you don’t have any idea that ' yes, I can do this', it just doesn’t happen.”

Puentes has a robust education and health program for students in elementary and middle school but does not yet have a program developed for high school students. A space just opened to expand the education program in the new Puentes health and wellness center at 1700 South St.

In Philadelphia, Latinos have the lowest high school graduation rate and the highest dropout rate of all ethnic groups. The students who started at the genesis of the Puentes elementary education program seven years ago are now graduating from eighth grade and heading to high school. The new program is designed to bring them together into their own supportive neighborhood-based community.

“It’s great timing,” said Steven Larson, a Penn emergency-room physician and a co-founder of Puentes. “Our goal is to think about how to make that transition to high school a successful one for these teenagers.”

The Lanzando Lideres goal is to create a culturally inclusive curriculum based on the “three E’s” — enrichment, engagement and education — for high school students to support their academic success. The curriculum will include health and wellness workshops, sessions on job training and college options, fields trips and expert speakers. Another goal is to build the teens’ self-confidence, working as a partner with their parents and the community.

“We realized that was a need that was there,” Toro said, “and we started to talk between ourselves about doing something, how the need at Puentes and the President’s Engagement Prize could fit together.”              

Each of the Penn students knows first-hand what it is like to grow up in a Spanish-speaking household with parents born in another country and to find success in an American high school.

“Growing up bi-cultural, it’s a different way of growing up,” Arizmendi said, “when you feel you have one identity at home and one identity at school, and you try to navigate both and try to be a normal teenager. It is very difficult. It is something that each of us has an appreciation of, our own success and our own path.”

Arizmendi, from Chicago, plans to be a nurse practitioner. Both her parents were born in Mexico. Last summer she was an Independence Blue Cross nursing intern in the prenatal clinic at Puentes de Salud, serving as an interpreter and teaching in the early-childhood programs. She continued volunteer teaching during the school year.

“We want to foster a safe space,” Arizmendi said. “We want them to feel like, if have an idea, they can share it with us.”

Salas, from Phoenix, plans to go to law school and eventually pursue a career in public service. She became involved with Puentes while doing research for her senior thesis about the academic experiences of first- and second-generation Mexican-American children. Her parents were both born in Mexico.

“It is a very personal research topic,” she said, explaining that mentors and tutors were key to her making it to Penn. “As I started to volunteer at Puentes, I became more and more invested in the organization and in love with the community.”

Toro, from Lexington, Mass., wants to become a physician and work in the Latino community. His parents were born in Colombia, and he often travels there to visit with the extended family.

Currently Toro is working at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, conducting research on geographic disparities and access to kidney transplants for children.

“I view this project as being as much a health intervention as an education intervention,” he said. “Implementing this project and working with this community is transforming my idea of how to treat health care. Community is essential.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Villarruel, the Penn nursing dean, has much in common with the three students. Her father was born in Mexico, and she grew up in Detroit speaking Spanish at home.

Much of her career has been focused on the Latino community. She designed the widely used intervention Cuídate, or “Take care of yourself,” which promotes abstinence and safer sex for teenagers within the frame of Latino culture, and Cuídalos, “Take care of them,” a small group and web-based program to increase sexual-risk communications between parents and teens.

When she volunteered to be the mentor for the Lanzando Lideres project, her first questions to the students were about what motivated them.

“They are drawing on some of their personal experiences in being able to move this forward,” Villarruel said. “What they want to do is pay it back. They were fortunate finding their way to Penn; they want to make it easier for others to find success.”



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