Talk even briefly to Harrisonburg High School junior Noel ’21, and you’ll quickly figure out that he’s a passionate learner with varied interests, Ivy League goals and a growth mindset.
Although he admits to being a procrastinator – a trait shared by none other than Leonardo da Vinci, he’s quick to point out – he’s improving: “Last year I didn’t procrastinate nearly as much as I did in middle school or my freshman year,” he said.
And this year, he just doesn’t have the time.
An astronomy, law, history and political science enthusiast, Noel’s academic load at HHS isn’t light: Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history, AP psychology, AP English, AP computer science, Honors precalculus, and dual-enrollment (for college credit) anatomy and physiology.
Amid all the details, Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) helps keep Noel attuned to achieving his long-term goals. The nonprofit, which creates college opportunities for Latino high school students, has served more than 110 scholars since 2012 in Harrisonburg, Richmond and Winchester. In addition to offering a three-year program of college readiness, leadership development and community service, SLI awards scholarships and computer funds to its graduates, plus provides dual-enrollement tuition support.
‘ONE OF THE FEW’
Most days after school, Noel takes a break to watch Netflix before getting down to homework.
“It’s about trying as hard as I can,” he said. “If I can be the first in my family to attend an Ivy League university, I’ll go for it.”
That “go-for-it” attitude and his curiosity make Noel remarkable, said Harrisonburg City Public Schools social studies coordinator and SLI founding board member Kirk Moyers.
“He’s one of the few kids who will actually research something he’s interested in rather than ask the teacher for the answer,” he said. “Because of this, he has a deep knowledge about a variety of topics, and makes connections and analyzes the material at the level of someone far more experienced than a high schooler.”
A “Cuban Salvadoran American,” Noel has been to Cuba several times to see his maternal grandfather, a “self-built” carpenter who’s old enough to remember the country before Castro’s revolution and who fed his own love of history as a library patron. Noel’s mom studied to be a nurse but didn’t finish her degree before coming to the U.S. for economic reasons. She is currently an electric pallet jack operator in a poultry plant.
Noel hopes someday to also visit the Salvadoran town where his father, currently a chef at an Italian restaurant, lived until coming to the U.S. at age 14. Noel says that he tells of a volcano-heated river in his Salvadoran hometown that is hot enough to cook corn.
This international heritage gives Noel unique perspective on the world, national identity and family relations.
“He is a bright young man with a keen sense of world politics and history,” said SLI program director and James Madison University professor Carlos Alemán. “Noel is acutely aware of how the history of Cuban immigration in the U.S. is markedly different than that of other Latin American groups, and how too many people in the U.S. have very little understanding of that different history.”
“SLI has been a great opportunity for me,” Noel said, in part because service projects – such as rejuvenating the courtyard garden at Waterman Elementary School last spring, supervising children’s activities at Harrisonburg’s International Festival, and mentoring younger students – have helped him “become a better citizen.”
SLI has also equipped Noel for higher education. Alemán, he said, “has done a great job of telling us how to prepare for our first year college” and connecting students to university resources. “He gives us advice from a professor’s point of view, which I really appreciate.”
It’s encouragement that Noel has in turn begun passing on to his younger siblings, keeping tabs on his brother’s academics and helping him out when the subject matter is difficult.
“SLI has made me a more mature person overall,” Noel said. “I definitely feel more focused.”