Pictured from left: Lourdes Sandoval, MSW, and Andrea Smith, Ph.D., are new members of the Scholars Latino Initiative board of directors, and Carlos Alemán, Ph.D., is the new vice chair.
The college-access nonprofit Shenandoah Valley Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) has welcomed two members to its board of directors, and appointed a new vice chair.
SLI’s mission is to support Latino/a/x high school students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships. Through collaborations with university and high school staff, faculty, and students, SLI provides college access opportunities throughout high school, plus financial support for college success.
The new directors are Lourdes Sandoval, MSW, of Reston and Andrea Meador Smith, Ph.D., of Winchester, and the newly appointed vice chair is Carlos Alemán, Ph.D, of Harrisonburg. They have diverse backgrounds in higher education and social services.
“Supporting SLI’s mission through board service means providing opportunities for our youth to achieve their dreams as future leaders!” said Sandoval, a senior case manager at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, where she has also served as senior accounting coordinator and refugee health education and outreach liaison. She earned her master of social work degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a bachelor of science in public health with a minor in human services from West Virginia University.
Smith is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Shenandoah University, where she is also Professor of Hispanic Studies and serves as an NCAA faculty athletics representative.
“I first learned about SLI 10 years ago, when I started recommending my students to serve as mentors,” she said. “I have been fortunate to work with vibrant, committed, and successful students from SLI since then, and am excited to further support SLI’s mission by joining the board. I look forward to getting to know the many promising Handley High School students and their leaders in the months ahead.”
Smith’s current research addresses representations of race and gender in Latin American film, and at the local level, she is a film screener and board member for Skyline Indie Film Fest. She has also been a faculty member for Semester At Sea and a Spanish instructor at the University of Virginia, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish, a master of teaching in Spanish and English as a Second Language, and a doctorate in Spanish. She studied abroad as an undergraduate and did doctoral research at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.
Alemán is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at James Madison University and has served as a SLI board member and program director since 2012. He received his doctorate in communication studies at the University of Iowa and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech communication at California State University in Fresno.
“SLI scholars are changing the world as they grow into leaders, artists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists – and that inspires all of us to stay true to our mission,” he said. “Walking with these first-generation students as they embrace the challenges and opportunities of college access opens our eyes to the beauty of their will and the strengths of our communities.”
SLI board chair Fawn-Amber Montoya, Ph.D., associate dean of the Honors College at James Madison University, welcomed the experiences and expertise that Sandoval and Smith bring to their new board service, and the opportunity to share board leadership with Alemán.
“As SLI continues its second decade, we look forward to continuing our young legacy of supporting students in our communities who are pursuing life-changing college access,” she said.
Since 2012 SLI has served 180 scholars (67 current and 113 alumni) and awarded more than $542,000 in financial support for students in college scholarship awards, computer awards, and dual enrollment tuition assistance. Its alumni have attended 24 colleges and universities.
“Not only did [SLI] equip me with a wealth of knowledge about higher education, but it also instilled a sense of belonging within me,” said Jennifer, a SLI scholar who graduated from John Handley High School and is now studying public health and data science at William & Mary. “Often, students from underrepresented backgrounds experience feelings of displacement or inadequacy. I would say SLI encouraged me to apply for other Hispanic college programs, volunteer opportunities, and colleges because it made me feel worthy of these opportunities.”
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Ariel (Huguenot High School ’20) is pursuing degrees in political science and history at Eastern Mennonite University.
I was surprised by how difficult sometimes it is to get into college, because it feels that once you’re there, it becomes certainly easier because you have a community and there are resources and people who pretty much are in charge of making you feel welcome and working for you, towards your success. So yeah, I was surprised by the huge contrast between how hard is to get into college, all the barriers that exist, all the bureaucracy, and especially when you’re first generation, it’s even harder because you have no idea how to go. Once you’re [in college] it’s more accessible than getting into it, actually.
In Richmond I remember my freshman, sophomore, and even junior year, I was pretty skeptical if going to college was going to be a reality for me, but once I saw Angela, Gabriela, and Katherine actually getting into college and doing well in their first year, I was like, “Okay, so it’s possible.”
I guess some advice for all the people who are students right now in SLI is that sometimes it’s crazy, the amount of work you have to do, especially if you’re working with Peter. You have to do a lot of papers, you have to read a lot, but at the end is worth it, definitely. It not only helps you with your work in high school because you definitely get an advantage, you get ahead of your peers in high school, but you definitely get another advantage once you get to college. Either in your critical skills or your writing skills or written skills, you’ll definitely see the results.
A year after I arrived [in the United States] I started in SLI, in high school. Reflecting to that, it’s been great, it’s been a lot.
SLI was a great experience for me. I felt that it prepared me pretty well for my college experience in every aspect. I was able to improve my English skill set. I mean, when I came here I barely knew English, so that was one thing. I was also inspired by all my mentors and developed my curiosity and critical thinking skills, too, so that was pretty good, too.
When I came here and I took my first writing class in college, I realized, Wow, yeah – I could tell, like seeing my other peers, that I was pretty much ahead of them because of SLI, and because of the work I did before coming here. That was definitely something I was really like happy about it. So yeah, SLI was definitely great for me.
When I got here [to college] I was shy, definitely, and more timid. I became more confident in my skills and in myself as a person. I learned more about the Latino culture here in the U.S. I got to know and become friends of a bunch of new Hispanic people and at this point they’re like my brothers and sisters and family, pretty much, because of the same situations we face and like sharing the great things about our culture, like our food and music.
I feel I’ve become more understanding, humane, and empathetic toward my community and toward all the other BIPOC communities, immigrant communities as a whole, so I think that’s something that my experience in college taught me and I learned through here, to be more humane, more empathetic, and definitely proactive towards these communities, towards the issues that we face in this society.
That was the first thing I did when I got [to college] was be involved with [the Latino Student Alliance]. I eventually became their co-president. That was a fun experience and now, towards my senior year, I became more involved with [Student Government Association], like a bigger picture club.
I’ve been involved with a bunch of clubs and orgs here on campus. It’s been definitely a learning experience for me, getting to know and interact with all these different people and get to know them better and form new friendships.
My main major was political science, and then I took a couple history classes and I realized, Oh wow, political science and history work pretty well together, and I ended up adding the history major, too.
I had a chance to take a couple Spanish courses with a focus on Latin American politics, and about like social movements and dictatorships in Latin America and it was great definitely, a good experience.
Playing soccer here at EMU was fun, to play four years, to connect with new people. I pretty much learned a lot about leadership and put into practice some skills, too, that was great, too. Overall it was a pretty good season for us. We did a bunch of good stuff this year, so that was good.
[Approaching graduation] is kind of bittersweet. It’s exciting definitely because it’s a transition time and actually I am excited to see and put into actual practice all the skills that I’ve learned here, all the theory and academic work, and actually interact with people from my community, so that’s pretty exciting, too, but at the same time kind of sad, definitely, since I think EMU was definitely a great fit for me. I’m going to be leaving a couple friendships here.
Now I’m thinking about what I’m going to do. I’m definitely applying to a couple grad school programs. I’m not sure if I’m going to go right into it after undergrad. I might work for a year or a couple months and get a sense of the work. We’ll see from there.
HARRISONBURG, VA / December 2, 2023 – Approximately 60 high school and college students attended the annual James Madison University Professors in Residence (PIR) and Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) College and Career Access Day at JMU, which for the first time featured local Sentara Health professionals sharing their expertise in promoting salud y comunidad, or health and community.
Supported by JMU’s Office of Inclusive Excellence and Engagement and Office of Admissions, the day was coordinated by Carlos Alemán, Ph.D, a JMU professor in residence at Harrisonburg City Public Schools and a SLI program director. JMU undergraduates in the student organization SLI Mentors assisted with catering planning and welcomed participants as campus hosts.
“Young people are more motivated than ever to make our world a better place as leaders, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and scientists,” said Alemán. “Connecting first-generation high school students with the resources to pursue these ambitions and careers through higher education is an invigorating experience.”
Additional support for the event came from Sentara Health through a grant that earlier this year also helped fund SLI scholarships for 18 SLI scholars currently pursuing college degrees in health-related fields. For College and Career Access Day, Sentara provided access to employees who shared with students about healthcare professions and opportunities. They included:
- Silvia Garcia-Romero, Director, Diversity & Inclusion
- Onesimo Baltazar Corona, Director of Operations (Harrisonburg), Sentara Community Care
- Gladys Zito, Language Services Coordinator
- Mayra Gavia Molina, Registered Nurse
- Zulma Argueta, Community Health Worker
In addition, Sentara physician assistant Leodegario Alonso provided the keynote address, sharing about persistence on his career journey, and encouraging students to forge their own pathways. Alonso holds degrees from Eastern Mennonite University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Before becoming a physician assistant, he worked as a radiologic technologist, Futuro Latino Coalition specialist, medical interpreter, and United States Army Reserve drill sergeant.
“It is very powerful to have someone like Leo, who looks like the scholars, share a story that resonates with them and inspires them to continue on their career path,” said Garcia-Romero. “These experiences are so impactful and make a difference in Latino career advancement, and this is why we are proud to be a partner and support SLI’s work.”
Participating SLI scholars, who attended from Harrisonburg and John Handley (Winchester) High Schools, were also invited to explore how to use medical equipment such as blood pressure monitors, CPR masks, and digital thermometers.
JMU has supported PIR-SLI College Access Day since 2016. The addition to the program of career professionals and support by Sentara Health marks a development in networking opportunities for attending students.
Academic exploration sessions connected students with JMU professors who shared about their curricula and areas of expertise. Topics and presenters included:
- Graduate Studies Opportunities, Melissa Alemán, Ph.D.
- Foreign Languages and Cultures, Verónica Davila Ellis, Ph.D.
- Communication and Relations, Reslie Cortés, Ph.D.
- Space and Physics, Prayash Sharma Pyakurel, Ph.D.
- Immigration and Justice, Graciela Perez, Ph.D.
- Politics and Political Science, Kristin Wylie, Ph.D.
Participants also toured the JMU campus and were treated to lunch in D-Hall.
With programs in Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Winchester, Virginia, Scholars Latino Initiative supports Latino/a/x high school students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships. Through collaborations with university and high school staff, faculty, and students, SLI provides college access opportunities throughout high school, plus financial support for college success. Since 2012 SLI has served 180 scholars (67 current and 113 alumni) and awarded more than $542,000 in financial support for students.
Irais (Huguenot High School ’21) is pursuing degrees in political science and Spanish with a minor in pre-law at Eastern Mennonite University.
I always knew that at some point I had to become that person, the person that I had in my mind because of the things I used to like, the things I like, about politics, helping the community, and being really active in our society, to make things better.
When I was in Mexico, I always wanted to go to college, that was one of my dreams. But when I came to the US, that dream changed because of my status at that time. I knew that it was going to be really hard to get into college, not only because of that but also because financial. I was just learning English, so it was really hard. It was like a dream. I didn’t see a future for it until I knew about SLI. I went to the meeting. I didn’t know English. I remember Dr. Kaufman there. He was trying to say my name, and I couldn’t say even “Hi” or “How are you,” because I didn’t know English. The same day Dr. Kaufman asked me if I wanted to be part of SLI, and that’s when my dream became into life again because I knew that there was hope there.
SLI was going to help me, and it did eventually. I’m here today thanks to SLI and Dr. Kaufman.
Many times people don’t look for help because they’re afraid. They think that there’s no hope. My younger self used to think that, that there was no hope because when I came to the US college wasn’t a dream anymore, and I met Dr. Kaufman and I knew that there was hope. I saw that. Never stop dreaming.
My major is political science and Spanish, and I have a minor in prelaw. I’m part of the SGA which is the Student Government Association, and I’m also part of LSA, which is Latinx Student Alliance. For SGA I’m part of the senators. I’m working on a project about having menstrual hygiene products for free in school. We look for what’s the best for students, and for LSA I’m just a co-historian.
I’m from Mexico. I feel like my passion for political science started when I was 12 years old and I saw a lot of injustice around my community, and that’s when I started reading about it, watching the news. I would like to become a lawyer first and then when I have the connections that I will need in the future, maybe become a politician.
My mom, when it comes to like my dreams, she supports me but it was also hard for her to think about me going to college because she also knew that there are so many things in the way to get into college. When I just came to the US she had two jobs. There was no time to express my goals or like my dreams to her because she has to work. SLI does have meetings where families can go and talk. She went to a couple of those meetings and that’s when she started helping me. She was like, “Yeah, you should do that. You should study.”
I have three brothers and two sisters and I talk to them. I’m always like, “I will support you if you want to go to college. I will help you to apply to any school that you want, and we will get financial aid, we will apply for scholarships, and there’s hope.”
When I was in high school I used to be like really afraid of talking in public or even talking to someone in the classroom. I was really really really afraid. It’s been 6 years. I feel more confident about myself, about talking in public, about seeking for justice. I used to think like, “Oh I wish I can be that person. I wish I can help others,” but at that moment I felt like I couldn’t help them because I guess I didn’t have the tools to do so. But now I feel like I have the desire to help people, and now I can help people, and I feel like the majority of that is because of SLI, because of college, because of the experiences that I have faced during this six years. So yes, I feel like I have changed.
Right now I’m taking flavors of the Hispanic culture, social economy and politics, American politics, comparative politics, international relations.
What would you say to yourself, or someone like you who is a freshman in high school?
To keep seeking for their dreams and their goals because it’s not impossible. It might be hard to do and to keep dreaming, to never never never stop dreaming about anything that they want to do, especially when it comes to college, especially when it comes to their future. They have the power and the ability to make it reality. There will always be someone there to help them. There’s hope, and there’s people just like SLI.
I feel like [SLI’s program] “Early College” helped me a lot because we had to write different papers for Dr. Kaufman and I had to write a 10 page essay about democracy, and like if it works or not. And that paper when I was writing about it, I was like, “Wow, it’s so many pages, so many pages about democracy.”
But in the long run I came to college and I have to write a 12 page paper and it has helped me because I write papers and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I know how to write in APA style or MLA style” because of SLI – and I actually got an A in my writing English course. I told Dr. Kaufman it was thanks to SLI.
Sofia and Alejandra were my [SLI] mentors, and I love them both because they helped me so much. I feel like that’s something that SLI does a really good job about, writing papers and having mentors for their students to ask for help.
I just want to thank SLI for all for the opportunities that they gave me and they are still supporting me through college. I’m really glad. Thank you so much.
You’re helping us. I can focus on school and not think about how I’m going to pay this semester, and it’s thanks to you, thanks to SLI.
Thank you so much.
Your support is welcome at vasli.org/donate.
Guadalupe (Hopewell High School ’22) is pursuing an engineering degree at Eastern Mennonite University, where she is the driver for the Super-Mileage Car club. Watch and read her 2023 interview below, and see her share during Meet SLI – Richmond in 2021.
How do you think going to college will change your life?
I expect to have more opportunities [with a college degree]. Most of my siblings or even my parents did not finish high school, so they don’t have a GED or anything. My dad and my brothers all work construction, so it’s a heavy job, and I feel like they have worked a lot for me to have what I have right now. I expect that [my] opportunities will give me the economy to help them as well, give it back, because that’s what they did for me.
SLI was so helpful in general, because I was in Mexico my whole life, so when I came here I was not familiar with the educational system. It’s completely different. I didn’t know about the SATs or the FAFSA. The college application process was totally unfamiliar for me. None of my siblings or parents went to college, so they didn’t know how the process goes, either.
When I joined SLI they helped me through all those steps and also implemented other things, like writings. The writings were really hard, but these assignments prepared me for what we do here [in college]. So I can say that SLI is a really big factor on me getting to college and on me.
How old were you when you came from Mexico?
I was turning 15. I started freshman year, but I think it was because the school system is completely different. I think I took a year extra. I’m grateful for that because SLI accepts freshman students and I was a freshman there.
Going to college was always my goal ever since I remember. In elementary school I always wanted to go to college. My parents always supported that. When I was a little kid I really enjoyed doing math homework and stuff, but sometimes I didn’t have homework so I just put homework to myself and was working on my homework, and my mom was like, “Why would you do that? You have your all-free day, and you prefer to put yourself some homework?” I was like, “I don’t know, I just enjoy it.”
Now I hope for less homework.
I decided to come here [to EMU] because I was like I need a little independence now, because I am an adult already and if I would be really close [to home] they will probably still keep me like a little kid right there. Two hours and a half is not bad because I can drive whenever I want to come back.
I’m taking calculus, stats, experimental methods – a lot of physics and labs, and programming. I was the type of person that kind of wanted to do something but was scared of it, so I was like “No, at this point I have to join various things.”
What are some things you are involved in?
Super-Mileage Car is a club. I joined when I was a freshman and it was like only boys and just me, but they were really nice and they were like trying to explain me through the steps, or if I needed, they would assign me something and help me out with that, so it was really nice.
Since I’m the shortest one I am the driver. Being the driver is kind of like, “Oh, I have their entire project in my hands.”
In the fall we built this car and then in April we went to the competition. We passed inspection the second day I believe, and we got to the road, so that was something really fun. Now I decided to continue, to stick with it, and we’re going to do it again.
I am part of CAC (the campus activities council) and LSA, which is a Latino Student Alliance. I am a co-historian there. We usually just try to spread our culture and make some events that will be enjoyable for the school.
Even though it’s kind of stressful sometimes, I’m just trying to have this balance between my social life and my educational life, because if you concentrate more on one than the other, you probably will have a lot of stress and that’s not good.
Has college been surprising in any way for you?
I did not have an idea exactly of what I expected for college because I’m the first generation of my family, so nobody really told me about anything. We get to do a lot of fun things and even interact sometimes with the teachers and students, like we are all getting along together.
So it’s really nice, really comfortable.
During SLI’s 2023 year-end campaign, donations are doubled, matched by $43,000 from the SLI Founder’s Fund, the Open Hearts Foundation, and anonymous donors, while funds last.
Contributions can be made at vasli.org/donate or mailed to SLI, PO Box 1245, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22803, and will help make SLI’s mission possible: to support Latinx students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships.
SLI scholars experience unique circumstances as in many cases first-generation college students; as talented but often invisible individuals; as children from families that are disproportionately under-resourced and disenfranchised; and as members of a growing population in Virginia and the U.S. that is underrepresented on college campuses.
Support for navigating these obstacles is vital for reaping the long-term benefits of a college education: Higher education is linked to increased wellbeing and better health; first-generation college students give their own children increased college opportunities; adults with higher education are more likely to engage with friends, family, and neighbors for greater wellbeing and resilience; highly educated adults are more likely to vote, volunteer, and donate; for college grads, work fits better with their talents and interested; and college grads earn $1 million more in their working years than other adults.
SLI programming is collaborative between high school faculty and staff and university faculty, staff, and students who mentor the participating high school students. Events include “college days” that offer networking opportunities for students. SLI alumni are also invited to maintain connection with each other through the new SLI Alumni Association virtual group, and to continue to share their developing stories with the SLI community.
SLI’s mission has been sustained through the generosity of its ORGANIZACIONES ALIADAS, which includes many individuals, businesses, foundations, and organizations.
SLI scholar Ariel (#17, Huguenot High School ’20, EMU ’24) was recognized Saturday at EMU men’s soccer senior day game, which they won. But we’ve always known that Ariel’s a winner, and you can hear him share his SLI story during a 2020 Zoom.
John Handley High School ’21
William & Mary ’25 (public health with a data science focus)
Growing up, education was one of my main concerns. As a first-generation low-income student, I was more focused on basic needs like money, housing, and food. I faced countless obstacles, including growing up in poverty, experiencing homelessness, and constantly being in survival mode. Despite these challenges, I always found solace in books and education. I don’t share my story for pity, but rather as a source of empowerment and to help others who have been through similar situations.
I am not the oldest in my family, but out of my seven siblings, I am the first to attend college. I understood from the start that I had to be a role model for my younger siblings, as my older siblings faced difficulties due to the circumstances we grew up in. So, it was up to me to navigate college independently, discover which organizations and clubs to get involved in, and figure out the process of applying for financial aid through FAFSA.
My first inclination to pursue higher education arose when I enrolled in the gifted program during my elementary school years. The teachers and individuals in the program served as my primary sources of inspiration. Through their guidance, I acquired crucial information, enhanced my public speaking skills, attended mandatory meetings, and engaged in volunteer work with children.
Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) significantly facilitated my path towards accessing college education. Not only did the program equip me with a wealth of knowledge about higher education, but it also instilled a sense of belonging within me. Often, students from underrepresented backgrounds experience feelings of displacement or inadequacy. I would say SLI encouraged me to apply for other Hispanic college programs, volunteer opportunities, and colleges because it made me feel worthy of these opportunities.
When it came to selecting a college, I faced challenges as self-doubt crept in while filling out applications. Additionally, I found myself torn between the idea of venturing far away or remaining in Virginia. In the end, I made the decision to stay in Virginia and exclusively applied to schools within the state. Despite receiving a full-ride offer from my dream school, Washington & Lee, I ultimately chose William & Mary. Interestingly enough, I applied to W&M on a whim at the last minute and ended up being accepted as a W&M scholar, which granted me a full tuition and fees scholarship.
I am grateful that I chose to further my studies at W&M because they provided me with an abundance of resources that I never imagined possible. During my first year, I had to withdraw for medical reasons, but the school was incredibly supportive. They offered networking opportunities, organizations like the First Generation and Low Income Group, WMSURE (which is part of the W&M scholars program), academic support, and mental health resources.
Unlike high school, where I had to work full time and balance multiple responsibilities, I no longer have to do that because W&M meets 100% of demonstrated need. I am particularly thankful that SLI taught me that it’s okay to ask for help because at W&M, everyone is always willing to offer support. Currently, I am working towards my undergraduate degree in public health with a focus on data science. I have upcoming meetings and internship opportunities lined up. In the future, I hope to pursue research in Latino health disparities or become a public health analyst after completing graduate school. I will forever be grateful to SLI for believing in me when nobody else did.