The Importance of Mentors for Latinx Young Adults

Mentors BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of givingcompass.org

Six years ago, around this time, I had just started my first year in the U.S. Education System. Two weeks after I packed my life into two suitcases and moved to Miami, I became a student at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High — a high school bigger than some universities in my hometown.

Everything was new to my parents and me. However, it was easier for me to acculturate to our new realities than it was for them. None of us knew the language, but I was lucky enough to have migrated at a younger age. My parents, on the other hand, were in their 60s.

“Immigrants who migrate after age 60 are often a ‘potentially vulnerable population’ due to limited English language proficiency, little or no U.S. work experience, and weak ties to social institutions,” according to Judith Wilmoth of Syracuse University.

It didn’t have anything to do with trying; they tried just as much as I did, if not more. 

My mom went to English classes while working over 40 hours a week for less than Florida’s minimum wage. My dad still takes ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at an Adult Learning Center. 

Spanish has dominated their linguistic map space for so long that learning another language has become nearly impossible. “Loro viejo no aprende a hablar, hija,” (You can’t teach an old dog new tricks) my mom used to say.

Beyond language barriers, they don’t fully understand how various systems work in the U.S. — the healthcare and education systems, to name a couple. How could I blame them? I barely understand the education system myself, even though I migrated at age 16 and went to school here.

Unfortunately, this meant I didn’t have anyone at home to guide me through my junior and senior high school years, let alone college. Neither of my parents has college degrees, and moving across the continent added some extra layers to their lack of higher education experience. They wanted me to go to college — they just didn’t know how to help me navigate the system. 

During my first year in high school, counselors held me back, and teachers disregarded me because I was a recent immigrant. They assumed I couldn’t become fluent in English in time to apply to college. I rarely ever met with the one college advisor (for over 1,200 students). I didn’t even know there was a college advisor for a while, and when I found out, I had no idea what to ask.

Luckily, I tested out of my ESL classes in less than a year, and I found senior friends who told me about their college plans. That’s how I heard about The Honors College at Miami Dade College and decided to apply. Not from a counselor, a teacher, an administrator, or a mentor — from a friend.

As a Latina immigrant and first-generation student, I lacked resources. My high school did not care about my success, and once I got to college, this became more evident. I was underprepared for many of my classes. I feared I could not catch up with my peers.

If it hadn’t been for a community college program that led me to meet incredible mentors who changed my life, I wouldn’t have been able to grow academically, develop myself in professional settings, transfer to Wellesley College, and earn my bachelor’s degree.

It is because of culturally responsive mentorship that I am who I am today.

Cultural responsive mentorship consists of mentors/mentees displaying cultural competence, which includes awareness, knowledge, skills, and attitude.

Youth Collaboratory reports that mentoring relationships can reproduce or reduce inequality. Therefore, “access to a mentor of the same race, ethnicity, or social class may be more important to youth who have had experiences of discrimination or prejudice or who are not well connected with their own cultural community.”

In and out of the classroom, every mentor I’ve had has been Latina. Witnessing women with similar backgrounds as mine in positions of power has been essential to my growth. 

At Miami Dade College, English professor and magazine advisor Emily Sendin’s pedagogy was crucial to my education. Her classes introduced me to Women’s and Gender Studies, which later became my major in college. 

She devoted countless hours to helping me improve my writing skills, always provided honest and valuable feedback, and coached me throughout the college transfer process. 

Thanks to Emily’s commitment to my future, I transferred to one of the top three liberal arts college in the nation. Her mentorship has shaped my college years, and her role in my life has impacted my career more than anyone I have encountered before.

When looking for internship opportunities, I didn’t have any connections. My parents did not have a professional network, and I couldn’t afford to accept unpaid internships. 

Volunteering for State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, I met Luisana Pérez Fernández. Luisana connected me to organizations that were doing the work I was interested in and introduced me to people who later became my coworkers and supervisors. 

She was — and still is — an inspiration to me. Her experience, knowledge, and work ethic have guided my professional path.

Once I transferred to Wellesley, I felt isolated and out of place. This is a college where the median family income is $141,000, and 59% come from the top-20-percent.

Coming from a small community college program in Miami, I was used to classes full of people who somewhat shared my personal and academic background. As a result, I had a hard time participating in my classes at Wellesley. 

Rooms full of students who went to private high schools and wore Canada Goose jackets on campus got to me.

But Professor Natali Valdez’s advice allowed me to feel more comfortable and place value in my voice. Her words of encouragement made me regain confidence in myself and speak my mind. It was easier to listen to a mentor who could truly empathize with me.

Although I am eternally grateful to every mentor I’ve had, I need to recognize that extra labor is not compensated for. Without the institutional support that I desperately needed, my mentors were left with a responsibility that was not theirs to carry.

If only institutions provided more and better resources for Latinx, Black, first-gen, and low-income students, all this weight would not fall on the shoulders of Latinx, Black, and first-gen mentors.