Juntos summit unites Latino students in quest for higher education and rewarding careers

Seventeen-year-old Arely Vasquez may not know what college she is going to attend or what she’d like to major in, but a couple things are for certain: She will be going. And she credits N.C. State University’s Juntos program and its summer summit for keeping her motivated to do what it takes to get accepted at a top-tier school.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service at N.C. State offers Juntos as a way to give Latino parents and students like Arely the knowledge, resources and motivation to stay in school and go on to college.

For the past three years, Juntos has been augmented with a 5-day, grant-funded summer summit at N.C. State. Program leaders include Dr. Andrew Behnke, Cintia Aguilar and Diana Urieta. All are with NCSU’s Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences.

This year’s summit, held July 4-8, attracted 90 rising 8-12 graders. Participants came from six counties: Alamance, Orange, Sampson, Wake, Wayne Counties. All counties have implemented the six-week Juntos curriculum, and related 4-H clubs are offered in Sampson, Wayne and Yadkin counties. A new club is just beginning to take shape in Orange County.

During the summer summit, students spent time in workshops and other educational activities. They learned about two of NC State’s largest colleges – the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering – and they went on a walking tour of campus.

They also heard from a panel of N.C. State Latino students; attended workshops on such diverse topics as self-identity, paying for college and how medicines are made; took part in a Zumba session and a soccer clinic with members of the Carolina Railhawks; and visited the Contemporary Art Museum and N.C. History Museum in Raleigh.

Diana Urieta, who helps coordinate the summit, said the summit’s goal is to get participants “excited about higher education.”

“The way we do that is each year we try to bring different colleges in to talk to the students, and we try to develop in them an identity of who they are,” she said. “We try to do that the first day and the second day – who am I? And where do I fit in as far as education?”

This year’s theme, Urieta said, was “Building Our Future.” “The idea is that … you didn’t start building your future here,” she said. “And you’re not going to end here at the summit. It’s an ongoing process, but the summit will give students tools that will lead to success in their educational journey.”

Juntos is Spanish for together, so it is fitting that teams from each of the participating counties worked together to paint a bench to bring back to their respective counties for use in a public place. Each group had to decide where to put their bench and how to decorate it.

They also took part in another community service activity when they visited the Museum of History by helping museum staff members understand which sorts of information there would be helpful for Latino students and their families, Urieta said.

Adding community service components to the summit reinforces one of the points that Juntos emphasizes: “Participants learn through the Juntos program that to get into college, they need to do community service and to be involved in extracurricular activities – they can’t just depend on good grades,” Urieta said.

Participant Judit Nava of Yadkin County said the summit helped motivate her to study hard so she can go to college. In the fall, she plans to study community translating and office administration at Surry Community College.

Sampson County high-schooler Luis Aguilar, an aspiring physical therapist, said the program has helped allay some of his fears about college. And Arely Vasquez , of Wayne County, also said that Juntos has given her a good idea about what it’s like in college – something her parents haven’t had the chance to experience.

“My parents got to the 8th or 9th grade and had to quit to go to work. But they want me to take advantage of the opportunities they didn’t have, so that’s one reason I’ve been involved in the Juntos program,” said the rising senior, who went to the summit two years in a row.

“It’s been very inspiring to be honest. Every year I leave with new ideas. It creates motivation,” she said. “You meet a lot of new people, and we do exciting projects. We also get a feeling of what college life is like – and we know that there is something good that is waiting for us in the future.”

-D. Shore

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