HARRISONBURG, VA – It may have been a rainy late summer day, but the Merienda ’23 celebration of SLI’s mission – to support Latinx high school students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships – was an evening not to be missed.
The 2023 version of SLI’s annual event, Merienda recognized the successes of SLI scholars, as well as the generous support from community businesses, organizations, foundations, and individuals that makes possible SLI’s ever-increasing impact. A full list of event sponsors is below.
“Not only did [SLI] equip me with a wealth of knowledge about higher education, but it also instilled a sense of belonging within me,” recalls Jennifer, a SLI scholar 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.”
Since its incorporation in 2012 SLI has awarded students from Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Winchester more than $545,000 in college scholarships, computer awards, and dual enrollment and Advanced Placement tuition assistance, including $143,000 in awards this summer alone. Its alumni have attended 24 colleges and universities. Watch SLI Beginnings
“At Merienda ’23 we not only marked the start of Latino Heritage month, but we also recognized the tremendous accomplishments of our students and those who help make it all possible – nuestra comunidad del Valle de Shenandoah,” said Stephania Cervantes, SLI managing director.
The event, which netted nearly $22,000 for SLI’s mission, featured locally sourced meriendas such as pupusas, empanadas, tamales, tres leches cake, churros, and much more; wine and local beers; coffee and hot chocolate con canela; dancing to the live “Mexilachian” music of Lua Project; SLI swag; and raffle prizes, all at Sunny Slope Farm.
Photos by Karla Hernandez
During the event Virginia Latino Higher Education Network president and former SLI board member Karina Kline-Gabel (below left) presented SLI managing director Stephania Cervantes and SLI board chair Fawn-Amber Montoya with micro-grants for SLI scholars to help purchase college supplies.
Photo by Karla Hernandez
Support for Merienda ’23 came from the many people who purchased tickets as well as many generous sponsors:
By Amy Crockett in Madison Magazine; photo courtesy Eliana Diaz-Aceituno – When Eliana Diaz-Aceituno learned of her acceptance into the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program, she didn’t know just how in-depth her summer experience would be. On her first day at IRCCS MultiMedica hospital in Milan, a doctor performed an amputation in front of her. READ THE ARTICLE
Sentara Health y F&M Bank ayudan con los gastos académicos en carreras de salud y negocios; JustPax Fund y Gerald and Paula McNichols Family Foundation apoyan la compra de computadoras para estudiantes universitarios de primer año
Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI) has awarded $143,000 in financial aid to 32 graduating scholars and SLI alumni from Harrisonburg, Richmond, and Winchester who are attending college this fall. These new awards and previous SLI financial support for students since 2012 now total more than $535,000.
Los premios de este verano incluyen $87,000 para una beca universitaria de $6,000 y un premio de computadora de $1,250 para cada uno de los 12 becarios de SLI al ingresar a su primer año de universidad (vasli.org/grads), más $56,000 en becas SLI Raíces Brillantes para 20 ex alumnos de la organización SLI.
Junto con muchas personas, empresas, fundaciones y organizaciones adicionales en la comunidad de apoyo de SLI, los financiadores de becas incluyen Sentara Health y F&M Bank, y los financiadores de premios informáticos incluyen JustPax Fund y Gerald and Paula McNichols Family Foundation.
La misión de SLI es apoyar a los estudiantes latinos/a/x de secundaria con acceso a la universidad a través de desafíos académicos rigurosos, desarrollo de liderazgo, becas y consejeria estudiantil. A través de colaboraciones con el cuerpo docente, los estudiantes de la universidad y la escuela secundaria, SLI brinda oportunidades de acceso a la universidad durante toda la escuela secundaria.
SLI apoya financieramente a sus estudiantes a través de becas universitarias, asistencia para comprar la tecnología necesaria para comenzar la universidad y asistencia con la matrícula para tomar cursos universitarios de inscripción doble y cursos AP mientras están en la escuela secundaria.
Desde 2012, SLI ha servido a 159 estudiantes académicos, incluidos 46 actuales y 113 ex alumnos. Antes de este verano, ya había pagado más de $392,000 en apoyo financiero para los becarios de SLI, que ahora habrán asistido a 24 colegios y universidades.
“Es un honor para SLI apoyar a los estudiantes en su búsqueda de educación universitaria”, dijo Fawn-Amber Montoya, Ph.D., presidente de la junta directiva de SLI y decano asociado del Honors College en la Universidad James Madison. “Estamos orgullosos de nuestros becarios y agradecidos por el apoyo de Sentara, F&M Bank, JustPax Fund, Gerald and Paula McNichols Family Foundation, y muchos otros en nuestras comunidades que han donado generosamente para otorgar estas becas y premios de tecnología.”
Eighteen of the scholarships awarded this summer are in part funded by Sentara, which provided $30,000 for Sentara SLI Scholar College Awards for students pursuing health related studies and careers (vasli.org/sentara). Estos destinatarios incluyen a:
Adriana Irene Gonzalez Salinas (John Handley High School '22) está estudiando administración de información de salud en Laurel Ridge Community College (vasli.org/adrianags)
Amy Jui-Arteaga (John Handley ’21) estudiará biología y español en la Universidad de Shenandoah (vasli.org/amyja)
Andrea Santiago Calixto (Harrisonburg High School '23) estudiará ciencias de laboratorio clínico en Eastern Mennonite University
Axel Vega-Mancinas (John Handley ’23) estudiará neurociencia/premedicina en la Universidad de Harvard (vasli.org/axel)
Consuelo Elizabeth “Elly” Mazariegos Agustín (John Handley ’16) estudia enfermería en la Universidad de Shenandoah (vasli.org/elly)
Everth Daniel Hernandez-Ventura (John Handley ’21) estudia enfermería en la Universidad de Shenandoah (vasli.org/everth)
Galilea Gallardo-Mena (Huguenot High School ’21) estudia psicología en Virginia Commonwealth University (vasli.org/galilea)
Gedalia García (John Handley ’22) estudia enfermería y psicología en Old Dominion University (vasli.org/gedalia)
Helen Duarte Guerrero (Harrisonburg ’23) estudiará ciencias biológicas e ingeniería biomédica en Virginia Tech
Helen Rivera Rivas (Harrisonburg ’21) estudiará ciencias de la salud, terapia ocupacional y español médico en la Universidad James Madison
Hillary Dayami Estrada Alvarado (Harrisonburg ’23) estudiará biología/premedicina en la Universidad de Virginia
Janefer Lobo Funez (Harrisonburg ’22) is studying biology and medical Spanish at James Madison University (vasli.org/janefer)
Johana Alvarenga Cruz (Harrisonburg ’22) is studying nursing at Eastern Mennonite University (vasli.org/johana)
Kristy Rios Ramos (Harrisonburg ’23) will study nursing at University of Virginia
Leydy Ayala Arteaga (John Handley ’20) estudia patología del habla en Laurel Ridge Community College
Lindsey Ruvalcaba (Harrisonburg ’23) will study biotech science at Blue Ridge Community College
Marvin Alexander Rivera Martinez (Harrisonburg '22) estudia ingeniería informática en la Universidad de Virginia (vasli.org/alex)
Yeyhlin Velasquez Zavala (John Handley ’23) will study biology/pre-medicine at Hollins University (vasli.org/yeyhlin)
Three scholarships are in part funded by F&M Bank, which has provided $15,000 for F&M Bank SLI Scholar College Awards for students pursuing business and entrepreneur-related studies and careers (vasli.org/fmbank). Estos destinatarios incluyen a:
Amy Vargas Aguillon (Handley ’21) is studying accounting and philosophy at University of Pittsburgh (vasli.org/amy)
Ariana Yoselyn Hernandez Perez (Harrisonburg ’23) will study business and economics at University of Virginia
Naomi Rosas Conde (Harrisonburg ’23) estudiará administración y comercialización de empresas en la Universidad James Madison
Los ganadores adicionales de becas universitarias SLI incluyen:
Adriana Ayala (John Handley ’18) estudia ciencias ambientales en la Universidad George Mason
Ariana Pérez (John Handley ’23) estudiará educación en Laurel Ridge Community College (vasli.org/ariana)
Ariel Morales Bonilla (Huguenot '20) está estudiando ciencias políticas, historia y español en Eastern Mennonite University (vasli.org/ariel)
Irais Barrera Pinzon (George Wythe High School ’21) estudia ciencias políticas/pregrado en derecho en Eastern Mennonite University (vasli.org/irais)
Israel (Huguenot '21) está estudiando justicia penal, seguridad nacional y ciencias políticas en la Virginia Commonwealth University (vasli.org/israel)
Guadalupe Tenorio Ramirez (Hopewell High School ’22) estudia ingeniería en Eastern Mennonite University (vasli.org/guadalupe)
Jimena Marquez-Marquez (John Handley '23) estudiará ciencias políticas en Dickinson College (vasli.org/jimena)
Noel Ayala-Gallo (Harrisonburg '21) está estudiando relaciones exteriores, política pública y liderazgo, y astronomía en la Universidad de Virginia (vasli.org/noel)
Keiry Lazo (Harrisonburg ’23) estudiará ciencias políticas en la Universidad de Virginia (vasli.org/keiry)
Raquel Pérez Torrico (John Handley ’21) estudia informática y diseño de paginas web en la Universidad Adventista de Washington (vasli.org/raquelpt)
Rosely Alvarado Villegas (John Handley ’22) estudia informática en la Universidad George Mason (vasli.org/roselyav)
SLI has named teacher Jeffer Alvarez and school counselor Lara Maquera as its program directors at John Handley High School in Winchester.
SLI program directors facilitate SLI’s mission to support Latino/a/x high school students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships.
Jeffer Alvarez and Lara Maquera are SLI program directors in Winchester, Virginia
“Based on my personal experience, studying at college and my masters have given me the chance to go way beyond what I expected when I began my career,” said Alvarez, an English as a Second Language teacher who has taught for more than 18 years to second graders through twelfth graders in public and private schools. “I am super excited about this new role with SLI as I can guide students’ processes, and support them into making the best life-changing decisions.”
Incorporated in 2012 and a 501c3 nonprofit since 2013, SLI creates college access opportunities through collaborations with public school teachers and local university faculty, staff, and student mentors. Its alumni have attended 21 colleges and universities.
“I look forward to getting to know students better while helping them to pursue their academic and career goals,” said Maquera, who has also been a teacher and school librarian and whose professional goals include sharing the love of literacy and education with youth.
This summer alone SLI awarded $143,000 in college scholarships and computer awards for students attending college this fall. These new awards and previous SLI financial support for students since 2012 now total more than $535,000.
SLI is funded by many individuals, businesses, foundations, and organizations. In June 2022 SLI announced the establishment of its endowment made possible by a lead gift from Gerald F. “J.J.” Smith, Jr., and the Gerald and Paula McNichols Family Foundation has funded many SLI computer awards to help Handley students begin college with the technology they need for success.
The previous SLI program directors at Handley were Spanish teachers Ruth Espinoza de Arteaga and Ileana Escalante, who also co-sponsored the student club Latinos Unidos. For students like SLI scholar Ariana, who graduated from Handley in 2023 and will attend Laurel Ridge Community College this fall, they were “a big help and support” in the process of becoming a first-generation college student.
“‘Go for what you want,’” she recalls them encouraging her. “‘You’ve done a lot already, and you will continue doing great things.’” [Watch Ariana’s SLI interview at vasli.org/ariana]
“I am grateful for all that Ruth and Ileana did for SLI scholars,” said Veronique Walker, SLI board member and the equity and family empowerment coordinator for Winchester Public Schools. “Their legacies will continue to unfold both in the lives of the SLI scholars they helped go to college and in the ongoing role of SLI to support future college students and community leaders in Winchester. I am excited for this next chapter of SLI at Handley under Lara’s and Jeffer’s leadership.”
SLI is “a very rewarding activity,” said Espinoza. “I am really pleased that both Lara and Jeffer have stepped out to continue this great program” at Handley.
“I am confident that they will do a wonderful job at supporting and encouraging our scholars in their journey through high school as they make crucial decisions about their future,” said Escalante. “¡Buena suerte!”
In what has become a tradition, the 2023 Hispanic Festival in Harrisonburg featured face painting a fun provided by SLI scholars.
Since 2018, SLI scholars from Harrisonburg High School have offered leadership and service at Harrisonburg’s Festival Hispano by hosting the children’s play, arts, and crafts center. Participating SLI scholars included rising juniors and seniors Abygail, Amy, Angely, Aylen, Eiby, Javier, Kevin, Natalie, and Nayaly. They were led by SLI program directors Carlos Alemán, associate professor of communication studies at JMU, and Hannah Bowman Hrasky, an English teacher at HHS.
Held by Comite Salvadoreno Paisanos Unidos (COSPU), the festival also included live performances of Latino music and folk dance, authentic Latino cuisine, and exhibits showcasing talented Hispanic artists. COSPU’s goal is to empower immigrant families through support, and the advocacy of changes that benefits immigrants.
Ariana (John Handley High School/Millbrook High School ’23) plans to attend Laurel Ridge Community College and become a teacher.
How did you decide to become a teacher?
In one of my teaching classes, Teachers for Tomorrow, we had to go spend 40 hours in a classroom. It definitely made me realize that that’s what I wanted to do.
How does it feel to be finished with high school?
I was so excited for graduation, but I was so sad because I was like, “Well, now I have to adult. Like, that’s a thing now. I gotta move on.” Then it clicked in my head and I was like, “Wait, I just graduated. Like, you’re done with high school.” That’s weird.
What would you like to tell about your family?
I grew up here. I was born here. My mom grew up in Hagerstown, Maryland. My dad immigrated from Mexico, and then same thing with my stepmom. So definitely like we get a little bit of every piece.
I have two older siblings. One lives on her own and she has her own little family, and then I have an older brother and he’s a full-time college student, and then I have my stepsister, my little sister, another brother, and then I have a younger brother who’s gonna go into kindergarten.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve prepared for college?
It’s difficult being a first gen [college student], your parents not knowing the college process or anything like that, and seeking ways to find help or get the help that’s needed to go through college, or find those resources.
I think I definitely learned to go for it. Realize that you’ve done a lot already so you will continue doing great things. Seeing myself now and then seeing my younger self is just like, “You did it. You can keep doing it.”
I’m a big role model for my younger siblings, so I’m hoping that they can see my footsteps and maybe follow into them, or even do better things.
I always think life’s a plant: You’re that one seed at one point in life, and you’re like never gonna stop growing. You’re not gonna always be perfect, but perfectly imperfect.
Gedalia (John Handley High School ’22) is pursuing a nursing degree at Old Dominion University
How did you decide to study nursing?
I decided to study nursing when I took my first trip to Guatemala in 2018. I noticed the lack of healthcare in Guatemala’s communities. I was shocked to see an elderly blind man begging for money, and I thought to myself, “How could this elderly man be on the streets?” It quickly struck me that I could one day be the help this elderly man needed. Although I knew it was impossible to help him specifically, I could help others in similar situations.
My parents have always taught me to do everything for God and to do it in a passionate way. Pursuing nursing has given me a sense of purpose. I feel that this is what I am meant to do because I will have the opportunity to help God’s children.
Where do you see yourself working after graduation?
I will definitely be working with the company I am right now because they help individuals with disabilities. I believe individuals with disabilities deserve the same care as anyone else. My job has taught me many things, but the most important thing is this: a disability should not define anybody. I love my job because it allows me to passionately help and serve elderly individuals with disabilities.
As a pre-nursing major, I am studying for the Health Education Systems Incorporated exam in my free time. I am also taking medical technician classes with the company I work for, in order to further my education and ability to serve my residents.
What have been some highlights of college so far?
I have enjoyed meeting new people and trying new cultural foods, joining clubs that share my interests, culture, and education, and strengthening my relationship with God. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from other countries, including some exchange students from Japan, and they gave me a different outlook on my college life. For them, it was difficult, as language was a barrier. It made me appreciate my own experience a bit more.
Are there particular people who have encouraged you?
My parents have definitely encouraged me to pursue a higher education and have always pushed me to chase any open opportunities. I am the first in my family to go to college, making it really difficult for me to adjust to college. I’ve had to learn everything on my own, but I’ve gained a lot from it.
WINCHESTER, VA – SLI scholar Jimena graduated from John Handley High School in 2023 with plans to attend Dickinson College.
How does it feel to be finished with high school and about to go to college?
Graduating from high school was a surreal experience for me, especially since I was the first in my family to accomplish this achievement. While I’ll miss my parents and sisters, I am excited to start college as summer comes to an end.
Are there particular people who have helped you reach this achievement and encouraged you to go to college?
My graduation was possible not only because of my personal efforts and commitment, but also thanks to my parents’ unwavering support. They backed me up in every decision I made for my education, and their encouragement is one of the driving forces behind my desire to attend college. My goal is to receive a superior education compared to what my parents were able to obtain in Mexico. They have given me a better life, and I aspire to make the most of this opportunity so that one day I can repay them with the life they truly deserve.
What do you plan to study at Dickinson College? Do you have a career in mind?
I plan to study political science. I’m almost 98% certain I want to become a congresswoman, but I’m still deciding what career path I will take in the future.
How did you reach that career idea?
As a member of the John Handley High School Speech & Debate Team for three years, I participated in mock congressional debates in different leagues. While researching for these competitions, I learned about problems in the United States that adversely affect minority groups, including unequal access to healthcare and human rights violations. This led me to develop a passion for advocating for these individuals who often feel voiceless and ignored. I want to be their voice, and I believe that becoming one of the few Latinas in Congress could help bring about the necessary change to support them.
What have been some highlights of your high school years?
Throughout my high school years I had the privilege of being a part of Latinos Unidos, a club that celebrates Hispanic culture. In fact, it was one of the most memorable highlights of my high school experience. I was a member of this club for four years and held leadership positions for three of them. Being part of this club helped me to embrace my identity as a Latina and allowed me to be myself without fear of judgment. I owe this to the support of my cosponsors, Mrs. Escalante and Mrs. Espinoza, who also served as SLI program directors. One event that stands out in my mind was the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month during the fall of 2022, which involved trivia, an assembly filled with music, dance, poems, and singers, and a community party. The traditions and values upheld in a Hispanic family are reflected in this club, and I am proud to have been a part of it. It feels like a second family to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have contributed to it in any way I could.
As she nears her first year of college, SLI scholar Keiry (Harrisonburg High School ’23, University of Virginia ’25) talks about how she’s grown as a person over the last four years. At UVA she will study political science on a pre-law track.
Congrats on graduating from high school! How are you feeling about going to college?
When I first started SLI I was like I know I want to go to college. We went through the steps. [SLI program directors] Dr. Alemán and Ms. Bowman helped me through it. Whenever anything came up, I could go to Wednesday SLI or I could go to Saturday SLI and I could be like, “Hey, this is happening.”
I love meeting new people. I love talking to new people. And I love school. That is my biggest goal: becoming super involved with the campus my first year.
It’s going to be a whole new environment. I’ve been to UVA, I’ve toured the campus, but it’s not the same as living there and being a full-time student there. That’s definitely scary to think about because I’m not even going to be in – like my family’s here. This will be the first time [living away from my family].
What do you plan to study?
Already getting my associate degree before graduating from high school has definitely helped because it puts me a little bit ahead of my class, since I already got my gen-eds out of the way. I’m studying political science under the pre-law track. Right now I’m kind of set on immigration law. As an immigrant myself, it feels like I have to give back, especially with how much support my own community has given me now.
How have you grown as a person over the last few years?
When I think back to my freshman self I think back to a girl that was scared, honestly. I was so shy.
One thing that really helped with SLI is that Dr. Alemán involves you. He’ll ask you questions directly, and he’ll put you on the spot, and while at first that was terrifying – I was like, “Why would you do that to me? I’m so shy!” – but now as I look back it definitely helped because it took me out of my shell.
All of the junior SLI were able to plan and host a social event where everyone else – all the mentors from JMU and all the younger students – could come. That was the first time I’ve ever been put in a leadership position without any interference from a teacher. Ever since then whenever there’s anything that needs to be taken charge of, I’m there, and I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter, put me there and I’ll do it, I’ll figure it out. If you would have done that to me my freshman year, I would have panicked. I would have been like, “I can’t do it, give it to someone else. I can’t do it.”
I think the biggest change about me that I’ve seen is how much into myself I’ve grown, how much into a leader – and the confidence I’ve grown in the past four years.
What are some other ways SLI has supported you?
We would have social events where Dr. Alemán would be like, “This is your time to network, to talk to people that may help you in the future, could help you.”
I got to interact with so many professors. I got to know this professor that teaches law and he was just telling me, “If you ever need help, here’s my email.” Now I have these different people that I can go to if something were to arise.
Do you think your siblings will go to college, too?
I know that my parents do have aspirations that both of my brothers do end up going to college, especially since I’ve paved the way and I can help them in retrospect. In the future, when they apply to college, and when they’re going through high school, I can be like, “Hey, do this, do that. Don’t make the same mistakes I made.”
I think it’s really important finding out who I am. Obviously I’m not going to know for sure for sure, like I have a good idea of who I am and who the person I’ve become is, but I know that as time goes my frontal lobe is going to develop. I’m going to obviously mature a lot more. Even if I think I’m mature now, I know in a few years I’m going to look back and be like, “Why did you do that?” I think that’s definitely a part of growing, and seeing who you become.
Who is someone who has encouraged you?
Someone who definitely helped me and pushed me was [my high school counselor] Ms. Weaver. Every time that I felt like I simply could not do it, I would go talk to Ms. Weaver and she would be like, “Well, you can. You’re already here. You can continue. You’ve been doing it for the past three years.” I know I went to Ms. Weaver so many times throughout like my junior and my senior year.
How are college finances looking for you?
Even with scholarships I still have to pay some of the money for UVA out of pocket. It’s a manageable amount, so obviously I don’t want to get a loan out, because I know paying that off is going to take a while. I’ve heard people be like, “Yeah I got a loan for college and I’m still paying it off and I’m in my 40s right now,” and I’m like, “No.”
I know for my first year I have enough to cover a lot of it, like I can pay half of it my first semester, and then continue working and pay the rest of it off my second semester.
I know that I’m going to make my education worth it, if I have the money to go. I appreciate my community so much for everything that they do and like everything that they offer to us.
Pictured above: Sacred Heart Center College & Career-Bound Program graduate Jasmin is presented a scholarship check by SHC director of programs Carolina Lugo and Lyons Sanchezconcha, chair of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board.
RICHMOND, VA – Jasmin, a graduating senior of the Sacred Heart Center (SHC) College & Career-Bound Program and future medical doctor, has been awarded a $1,000 scholarship sponsored by Canastas Chicken Restaurants, SHC, Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI), and SLI advisory council members Amelia Castañeda and Lyons Sanchezconcha.
“My parents have always told me that education is key, and that with education so many doors open up for the future,” Jasmin wrote in her scholarship application. “Since I was little I knew I wanted to become a doctor. I want to keep on learning and filling my mind with knowledge for these next four years, and eventually apply to medical school.”
Jasmin, who graduated from Hermitage High School this spring and will be the first in her family to attend college, will begin studies at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall.
“There are moments where my commitment and motivation to achieve my dream career go down because my dream career is something no one in my family has done,” she wrote. “This scholarship will make a difference for me by helping me get closer to becoming a doctor and allowing my parents not to worry so much about the money and how much it will cost for me to achieve my goals.”
The third-annual scholarship for College & Career-Bound Program graduates was sponsored by:
Sacred Heart Center, which supports Latinos in Richmond through programs such as adult education, family literacy, citizenship classes, and more;
Scholars Latino Initiative, which supports Latinx high school students with college access through rigorous academic challenge, leadership development, scholarships, and supportive mentorships;
Amelia Castañeda, Welcome Center and family advocacy coordinator at Richmond Public Schools and member of the SLI Advisory Council; and
Lyons Sanchezconcha, chair of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board, president of the Virginia College Access Network, vice-principal at Huguenot High School in Richmond, and member of the SLI Advisory Council.