In a system where there are so many things against BIPOC communities, it is important to find support early on.
Navigating life as a first-generation Latina can be daunting. For me, learning about different processes and social expectations was a bit difficult. Applying for college seemed so foreign to me, learning how to behave in my first “adult” job was a feat in itself, and advocating for myself has been a struggle.
Thankfully, many of these steps were guided by mentors who have advised me along the way. I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on how important mentorship is, especially for a young Latina. But, if anything, having a mentor is vital to the success of a Latina.
Ten years ago, I thought mentors were reserved for affluent families only, however, now I know anyone can tap into them. The good news is that finding mentors is becoming increasingly easier. Programs such as L.O.V.E. in New York are one of the places Latinas are given intentional mentorship.
The premise of the L.O.V.E. mentoring program
L.O.V.E. or Latinas On the Verge of Excellence is a mentoring program that supports and empowers young Latinas to strive for success, both in school and in life, through mentorship and health interventions.
These health interventions are targeted at mental, reproductive, and physical health. As if that wasn’t enough, they also provide college and career readiness.
Its differentiating factor is a shorter age gap, where mentors are not much older than their mentees.
“For us, the age gap has proven successful,” L.O.V.E.’s founder told BELatina News during a recent interview where she told us her story and how everything started.
“Our girls are maybe four years younger than their mentors. This way, they can really relate to each other. So, you are going to be able to see yourself reflected in us as mentors.”
Since they focus on areas with high Latino populations, such as South Bronx, most of their mentees are young Latinas. However, the program welcomes a diverse group of mentees as well.
This ambitious mentoring program just celebrated its tenth anniversary and is planning to deepen its impact.
Though the program has been running for ten years, its inception takes place several years before that.
The Latina behind the program
Founded by a Colombian visionary, Claudia Espinosa, she always knew that her purpose was to do something grand. Through her unwavering commitment to do something impactful with her life, she used her unique life experiences as motivation.
“I personally believe that we’re here for a reason, for a purpose, and that purpose is to fulfill our dreams and goals and to make sure that we make them happen.”
“I’m guided by my intuition, by my heart.”
Aside from creating a safe space for young Latinas, she holds three master’s degrees. One is in Forensic Psychology from CUNY, the second is in Public Administration from NYU, and her third master’s degree is from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She’s also currently pursuing her Doctorate in Education at NYU. But it took her a lot of determination to get there. (She paid her way through school as a personal trainer.) Yet, her nature is to be unstoppable.
“If I come up with an idea or a vision for something, I’ll make sure I find a way to do it.”
Its beginning took place over 10 years ago
L.O.V.E.’s story starts in the year 2000, when its founder, Espinosa, emigrated from Cali, Colombia at the age of 20 to the United States and left behind her security, a then-unfinished degree, and family. Upon arriving, she realized she was starting from scratch. From one day to another, she had to learn how to manage to live in a country where her native language of Spanish was not the norm. She also had to learn how to deal with her immigration status; she was undocumented for seven years after her tourist visa expired.
Everything she endured leading up to L.O.V.E was a building block she used for its creation.
She recalls landing a job in a suicide prevention program in 2009 in Brooklyn. That job was the beginning of everything.
“I’ve always said that before that job, I didn’t know anything about the challenges affecting young Latinas, in particular in New York City.”
While at that program, she was an intake counselor where she spoke and interviewed girls who wanted to join the program. These girls were referred by hospitals because they had suicidal ideation and depression.
“They would tell me about how they felt hopeless, about how they felt they had no reason to live because they saw that they were not going to be able to overcome all of the challenges that they saw in their lives.”
“Most of these young women were immigrants.”
She recalls a lot of these young girls did not speak English and were adjusting to acculturation. These girls felt so lost that they felt as though their only way out was suicide.
Espinosa empathized with them and even saw parts of her own story in them.
She understands her foundation was set thanks to her strong support system in Colombia and having parents who encouraged her to get an education. She knows this is a privilege.
But it was through the immigrant identity – and its difficulties – that she related to these girls.
“I had to put myself through ESL classes for two years. During the seven years, I was undocumented, I was unable to leave the country. All of the challenges undocumented people experience, I experienced them.”
She worked in that program for less than a year as she finished her first degree in CUNY and went to NYU to pursue her second degree. During this time, she also started working for “Big Brother, Big Sister,” where she learned about the importance of mentoring.
Everything in her life was laying the foundation for L.O.V.E.
Shortly after, as she studied at NYU, she was given the opportunity to create a pilot project. This project entailed her doing extensive research and had similar pillars to L.O.V.E. Through this project, she received support from various departments at NYU.
In the spring of 2012, she recruited mentors from NYU and brought Latinas from the lower side of New York to her university. After seeing its success, she knew she had to replicate the model in order to create a bigger impact.
“I developed a relationship with a network of schools and they allowed me to launch the first school-based program in Harlem called the Young Women’s Leadership School of Harlem.”
That was the first mentoring program at a school, at that time, on New York City’s lower side. She taught in the program in the fall of 2012, which speaks true to her dedication. That is when she decided it was time to create L.O.V.E.
Espinosa went back to work as a personal trainer as it afforded her the flexibility she needed to put more effort into her mentoring program.
At first, she was the one teaching the classes since she implemented the program at a school – it was originally an after-school program. She would also work with an intern to recruit mentors. Finding success at recruiting mentors from NYU, she started recruitment from CUNY, too,
Her mark in these original Latinas’ lives has been made already.
“Now, I see them years, ten years later, and they graduated from that high school, they went to college, they’re now in master’s programs.”
“I am very much connected to them and will forever be.”
The program’s next steps
What once started as an after-school program is now a space that equips young Latinas with tools that will help them reach their own excellence.
By instilling a growth mindset into the girls, they are able to encourage these girls to go after what they truly want.
“L.O.V.E. is about showing the girls, not only through our curriculum but teaching them with real facts through real people that look like them that have gone through similar experiences.”
“We let them know that these women that have been able to overcome that and succeed, and understand who they are.”
Espinosa is now focused on having a deeper impact and having access to more schools.
“We know that the students are going to take our class and we can make our impact.”
“My personal dream is for L.O.V.E. to become a health-required class for girls in public schools.”
They are a health class now, though not a requirement.
L.O.V.E. used these past ten years to develop the model, learn, and understand what they do and how they do it. At this point, the Colombian founder feels that she needs to replicate everything that’s been possible by L.O.V.E and provide more support to the young women in New York City.
“There’s so much more again that we can do that we’re just maybe like 0.1% of what we are able to do.”
To learn more about the L.O.V.E. mentoring program (Latinas On the Verge of Excellence), you can visit its website or follow them on social media.