By the time her family left Guatemala when she was eight years old, Elly already knew what she wanted to do with her life: care for people.
Today, Elly is an experienced certified nursing assistant, a certified medical interpreter, and a senior biology major at Shenandoah University with plans to become a physician assistant.
She’s made a life out of caring, a passion that began with caring for her ailing grandmother, who called Elly “her doctor,” Elly remembers.
“It made me feel that I was doing something positive for someone,” she said. “Every time we have a loved one that is sick or struggling with something, we are to extend a hand and help them out with whatever is going on.”
But getting to where Elly is now didn’t just happen. It took hard work, encouragement and support that included three years as one of the first scholars in the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) program at John Handley High School – a program for which she now volunteers as a coordinator at SU.
A nonprofit that creates college opportunities for first-generation Latino high school students, SLI has offered rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, supportive mentorships and scholarship awards to Handley scholars since 2013.
Elly’s family lived in Maryland and Northern Virginia before settling in Winchester in time for her eighth grade year. During those years of change – adapting to new cultural surroundings, navigating bullying, not feeling like she belonged – she always told herself that if she could learn English, everything else would fall into place.
She knew there was an alternative to sticking with education: getting a job to help provide for her family. In Guatemala, after all, her mother had completed just one year of middle school, and her father high school.
They encouraged Elly to pursue her goals even though doing so wasn’t always easy.
“They didn’t want my siblings and me to continue that cycle of just getting just a partial education and being stuck there,” she said. “We have to be better.”
She did master English, thanks to a personal determination that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Elly is “quiet but tenacious,” said Andrea Meador Smith, professor of Hispanic Studies at SU. “Her persistence is evident in her studies, her devotion to her family, and her service commitments.”
ON THE SLI PATH
Elly joined SLI when she was in tenth grade at John Handley High School, and credits the program with showing her that attending college was a real possibility.
She was paired with a mentor, an acting major at SU who Elly said helped her overcome her terror of public speaking. SLI’s Early College program also helped Elly develop her writing skills, connected her to volunteer work, and exposed her to college-level academics, since in the program her papers and presentations were graded by college professors.
“SLI and my mentors enlightened me that I can go ahead and fulfill what my goals are, what my dreams are,” she said. “They kept me on that path.”
Elly seized that new sense of opportunity. She is, after all, “driven, collaborative, empathetic, independent and engaged,” said Bryan Pearce-Gonzales, member of the SLI board of directors and a professor of Hispanic Studies at SU. He and other faculty have given Elly a traditional SU label reserved for students who excel academically and socially across programs: “Superstar.”
AN ADVOCATE FOR OTHERS
But it hasn’t been enough for Elly just to succeed. Her passion, after all, is caring for others.
When she realized she wanted to pass on to younger SLI scholars what had made her own college experiences a reality, she approached Maggie McCampbell Lien, the director of the Mosaic Center for Diversity and the SLI program director at SU, to find out if she could help.
Now, as coordinator of SLI activities at SU, Elly interviews SU mentor candidates and helps pair mentors and high school mentees. She also gives presentations – the very activity that once gave her panic attacks – to SLI scholars and their families about financial options for paying for college.
“Elly is peacefully determined,” said Tom Robb, SLI program director at Handley. “As she studies and continues to work towards her goals, current SLI scholars are benefiting from her example and giving spirit.”
And she shares about her own experiences, participating as a speaker on various campus and community panels.
“Elly is the definition of resiliency,” said McCampbell Lien. “Every time she has faced a hurdle, she has been determined to overcome it.”