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    Great Community Give ’21

    Thank you, Great Community Give!

    Sixty-six donors gave $15,246 to help Scholars Latino Initiative provide college scholarships, computer awards, dual enrollment tuition assistance, and college opportunities for Latinx students.

    As SLI alumna Elly said recently: “SLI was a very eye-opening program for me. I had amazing mentors who guided me in my educational path, as well as that ‘push’ to keep me going. From not believing I could obtain a college degree to now working on my graduate degree is honestly a huge blessing and a great honor to my family!”

    Thanks to the Give, SLI’s community of support is growing – which means greater impact for SLI scholars like Elly.

  • All Posts,  Events,  Meet SLI Scholars,  News,  SLI in Harrisonburg

    ¡Conózcanos! SLI – Harrisonburg

    Aprenda sobre el programa de Scholars Latino Initiative a través de las experiencias de los estudiantes, los tutores y los líderes de la organización en este evento virtual.

    Presentado por Karina Kline-Gabel de la junta Virginia Latino Advisory Board y Sal Romero de las escuelas públicas de Harrisonburg Public Schools. Patrocinado por Rocktown Realty.

  • Noche 2020 dancing
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    Noche de Salsa 2020

    PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Young | The Breeze

    Noche de Salsa 2020 (in pandemic-friendly form!) featured a drive-through takeout dinner from Salgado’s Pupuseria y Taqueria. As guests drove through the Steven Toyota service building to receive their food, they saw performing dancers from Salsaburg and the Friendly City Dance Room, received diplomas of gratitude, and were invited to make scholarship donations to support SLI’s mission to create college opportunities for Latino/x students.

    Media coverage:
    Scholars Latino Initiative to convert its fundraiser into a drive-through event
    Scholars Latino Initiative dances around COVID-19 for fundraiser

    Among the Noche de Salsa 2020 recognees were Michael Walsh, Dean of Admissions at James Madison University, and Gloria M. Figueroa-Vargas, Maestra de Español, M.A., Teacher of Spanish as a Foreign Language and Its Culture at Harrisonburg High School:

    “When my father was 18 months old, he lost his father in a mine accident,” Walsh recalls. “When he finished high school in 1936, he was able to be the first in his family to attend college because the high school teachers, the college faculty, and community leaders worked together to give him the opportunity. I honor his memory by helping provide first-generation students the same opportunity my father was given.”

    “Nonprofit organizations as SLI are essential in our schools to ensure support and empowerment for our Latinx students and their families,” Figueroa-Vargas said. “SLI focuses on supporting our students academically and being proud of their heritage.”

  • Scholars Latino Initiative mentor Jessica Discua-Aguilar
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    “I became the mentor I wish I had.”

    JMU nursing student and Scholars Latino Initiative mentor Jessica Discua-Aguilar said in a celebration of National Hispanic Heritage month that as a first-generation citizen and college student, she at times “felt lost, incapable” even though she “just knew” she had to “make it in America,” she wrote. “I understand what it’s like to not have a mentor or have the resources needed to be successful.” READ MORE

  • SLI Advisory Council
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    SLI Announces Advisory Council

    A warm welcome to the members of the brand new SLI Advisory Council! This body, facilitated by SLI Board of Directors chair-elect Karina Kline-Gabel and member Larry Miller and Director of Development Christopher Clymer Kurtz, will advance the expansion of SLI’s network of supporters and advocates to promote SLI’s long-term fiscal sustainability and growth, for the benefit of SLI scholars.

    Inaugural council members are:

    • Kenia Brooks, Farm Placement Specialist, Virginia Employment Commission, Winchester
    • Amelia Castañeda (not pictured), Welcome Center and Family Advocacy Coordinator, Richmond Public Schools, Richmond
    • Isabel Castillo, Lead Organizer, Virginia Organizing, Harrisonburg
    • Diana Patterson, Owner, DSP Services, LLC, Winchester
    • Sal Romero, Jr., Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Harrisonburg
    • Lyons Sanchezconcha, Virginia Latino Advisory Board; Educator, Richmond Public Schools; and College and Career Bound Program Facilitator, Sacred Heart Center, Richmond
  • Mary
    All Posts,  Meet SLI Scholars,  News,  SLI in Harrisonburg

    Meeting Mary: Educational inequalities and how SLI opens doors

    By Christopher Clymer Kurtz
    Director of Development, Scholars Latino Initiative

    I first learned about the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) in the fall of 2018 when I interviewed one of its scholars, Mary, for a WMRA report about inequalities in education.

    ProPublica and the New York Times had detailed disparities across the country showing national statistics all the way down to individual school systems and schools. At Harrisonburg High School, according to its website, white students were “three times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Hispanic students.” 

    How would a student respond to that statistic? I wondered, and was introduced to Mary, who at age 12 had moved to Harrisonburg from Santiago, Dominican Republic. A high school senior at HHS, Mary was enrolled in high school honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses, as well as college dual enrollment courses. 

    She wasn’t surprised by the report.

    “It’s kind of hard to integrate the people who were not [at] the table when the system was being made,” she told me. “It doesn’t have to be just AP and dual enrollment [classes]. Even in some honors classes, you can kind of step in those classes and you can see that there’s a higher percentage of students who are not of color.”


    A year and a half later, the COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the impact of racial and educational disparities: “Hispanics are nearly twice as likely as whites to have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus shutdowns,” a Washington Post-Ipsos poll found, and “younger and blue-collar workers, as well as those without college degrees, are most likely to have lost their jobs.”

    Fostering college access for underrepresented populations takes strategic diligence. Even with hard work and determination, Latino/x students like Mary who dream of being the first in their families to earn a college degree, along with their parents, may lack essential information about how to prepare for and apply to college, access financial aid or additional funding, and navigate college life.

    SLI began working to fill this knowledge gap for Latino/x high school students in the Shenandoah Valley in 2012. Today it continues to create college opportunities through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, and supportive mentorships, as well as dual enrollment tuition support, computer awards, and college scholarships for its scholars in Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Winchester, Virginia – scholars like Mary.

    “SLI opens doors of opportunity through experiences and funding to support student development of skills and mindsets to prepare them for college,” said Patrick Lintner, chief academic officer for Harrisonburg City Public Schools and SLI supporter. “These talented students are so important for our future!”


    Not long ago I caught up with Mary, after she’d completed her first year of studies at James Madison University, where she is a health sciences major and medical Spanish minor. She is also the Woodson Martin Democracy Fellow at JMU Civic, and one of a handful of students on JMU’s campus named as a JMU First Generation Scholar.

    She said she joined SLI in high school mainly because it was something to do with friends, but it soon became more than that: SLI was not only a support system, but a place for asking questions and figuring out how to navigate financial aid paperwork, think critically, approach professors and succeed in a college class.

    Mary also joined HHS’s interpreters club, and now sees medical interpreting as an enjoyable career option and a way to explore other healthcare professions. She was fascinated this spring by a JMU class about medicine and culture in Latin America, which focused on the connections between health systems, politics, and socioeconomics in various countries. 

    This past year corroborated what Mary had learned in SLI: Success in college requires constant work, even more than in high school. 

    “I went in already knowing that, but my first year definitely confirmed it,” she said. 

    College also offered continued SLI opportunities for Mary. In her fellowship she assisted with census and voter registration awareness efforts on campus, and was the public face for two SLI-led community events held at Harrisonburg’s Lucy Simms Center that offered “a safe space” for people in the community to share their immigrant stories.

    This spring the pandemic brought its own twist to the academic year: online classes. Mary was already living at home with her mom, stepdad, and younger sister, so she didn’t have to pack up a residence hall room, but taking classes exclusively online demanded extra effort and motivation.

    “I definitely felt like I was living senior year of high school all over again,” she said. “It felt like I had a severe case of senioritis, like I just could not get myself to focus on a single thing.” 

    But focus she did, and after a successful finish is looking forward to the start of the fall semester.


    This summer Mary is working as a cashier at a Harrisonburg big box store where her mom also works. It’s a job she started last August and held through the school year, selling tools and home improvement supplies – “taking people’s money and letting them go out the door,” she said.

    Those might be different kinds of tools from the ones she picked up in SLI, where she received college prep training that she said helped equip her with a “little reference kit or toolbox” for college success.

    But opening doors? SLI scholars like Mary know that it’s no small matter.

  • Great Community Give and SLI
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    Thank you, Great Community Give friends!

    Educators shared why they support SLI, SLI scholars provided testimonials, and donors, eager to empower local Latino/x students who dream of going to college, responded during the 2020 Great Community Give.

    More than 70 people and educators who pledged matching funds donated more than $11,000 (in most cases giving extra to cover platform and payment fees!).


    Ongoing donations are gratefully welcomed at vasli.org/donate.

    Educators pledging Great Community Give matching funds included:

    • Pete Bsumek, Professor, James Madison University
    • Christopher Clymer Kurtz, former teacher, Rockingham County Public Schools
    • Lara Coggin, Ph.D., ESOL Teacher, Richmond Public Schools
    • Amber Corriston, Dance Specialist, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • Mike Davis, Executive Advisor to the President, James Madison University
    • John A. Downey, Ph.D., President, Blue Ridge Community College
    • Andrew Dudley Barnes, Lecturer, James Madison University
    • *Jason Good, Vice President for Innovation and Student Recruitment, Eastern Mennonite University
    • *Laura Feichtinger-McGrath, Director of EL Services and Title III, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • Suzanne Fiederlein, Ph.D., Interim Director, CISR, James Madison University
    • MarthaJune Graber, Retired Spanish Teacher
    • Susan Huxman, Ph.D., President, Eastern Mennonite University
    • Pat Lintner, Chief Academic Officer, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • Fawn-Amber Montoya, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Honors College, James Madison University
    • Jenna Martin-Trinka, Reading Specialist, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • C. Leigh Nelson, Ph.D., Professor, James Madison University
    • *Bryan Pearce-Gonzales, Professor of Hispanic Studies, Shenandoah University
    • *Tom Robb, Math Teacher and SLI Program Director, Winchester Public Schools
    • Kirk Shisler, Vice President for Advancement, Eastern Mennonite University
    • Ann St. Clair Lesman, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, Shenandoah University
    • Jason Van Heukelum, Superintendent, Winchester Public Schools
    • Anda Weaver, School Counselor, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • Philip Yutzy, Spanish Teacher, Instructional Team Leader, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • Margot Marie Zahner, Director, Great Oak Academy, Harrisonburg City Public Schools
    • and anonymous supporters

    *Member, SLI Board of Directors

  • All Posts,  Meet SLI Scholars,  SLI in Harrisonburg

    A full schedule and a growth mindset: SLI scholar Noel

    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. 


    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.”