Twenty-one years after founding Scholars Latino Initiative in North Carolina, professor of leadership Peter Kaufman is as deeply invested in the program’s success as ever.
“What’s on the docket? Basically, we continue,” he said when asked about upcoming plans for SLI.
Kaufman founded SLI, a program that pairs Latinx high school students with college-aged mentors that help them prepare for college, in 2003. The decision was driven by his disillusionment with the ineffectiveness of movements in which he had participated as a young man, he said. At the time, it had been several decades since he had last been involved in social activism. Consistency is a theme that comes up again and again in Kaufman’s description of community engagement.
“We didn’t save the world, and so I gave up on anything socially active,” Kaufman said. “I went into hibernation, became a historian and didn’t care, for 35 years or so, about the world.”
However, in 2001, he was reinspired by a radio program about a group of academically promising students in Siler City, North Carolina, who left high school at 16 because they saw no path to college with their undocumented status, he said.
At the time, Kaufman was the coordinator of the Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina, and in collaboration with several UNC scholarship students, he created a network of mentors that aimed to help Latinx high school students prepare for college and work through the admissions process.
In 2008, Kaufman moved to Richmond and started a new SLI chapter at UR, which is currently thriving under the joint leadership of co-presidents Senior Sofia Ringvald and Senior Sofie Martinez.
Ringvald first joined SLI in her first year. “During that time, I was just trying to find any Latinx organizations on campus, and I joined all of them, basically,” Ringvald said.
From her early role in SLI as a mentor, she developed a love for the organization and took on roles of increasing responsibility over the next several years, and now refers to SLI as her “pride and joy.”
Martinez, who was recruited by Ringvald in her sophomore year, said her co-president along with Kaufman drew her into the organization.
“I really was just very inspired by him and really appreciated his approach to mutual aid work and volunteer work in general,” Martinez said. “His whole philosophy is that we really can't help other communities without understanding them and asking them what they need. They already know what they need, like we just need to provide the resources and the support.”
To provide this support, each SLI mentor pairs with a high school student and forms a relationship with them over time. Each mentor develops a comprehensive understanding of their mentee’s college application process at every stage, including their academic and extracurricular strengths and college prospects.
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“That whole process is really hard for Latinx people in general, so having a mentor to just kind of help you apply and help you through that process; someone who's been through it and can kind of guide you is really important,” Ringvald said.
She also stressed that the mentor-mentee dynamic can also be about providing emotional support and friendship during a highly stressful time for the students.
“We’re able to connect about college, as well as not about college,” she said. “We see them as people, as our friends and as our siblings. So, we really cultivate a culture of community.”
One way that SLI fosters a culture of community is through their monthly family meetings, during which UR mentors meet with their mentees’ families to chat over lunch, review changes to their applications, practice socratic seminar skills and provide a forum for parents and caregivers to voice questions and concerns about college applications.
Martinez and Ringvald collaborated with Kaufman to develop the early college preparation aspect of the monthly meetings, developing both the format and the material discussed. Last month, the lesson focused on critically analyzing the value of a college education.
“The whole model of SLI is really built to like, not only encourage our students to become leaders in their own way and be able to truly connect with students, but also to make education accessible,” Martinez said. “With a college kid that they also already know and are friends with like that, there's not that barrier there and it kind of eliminates that kind of superiority complex that can happen sometimes between students, especially Latinx students and their teachers.”
Both Ringvald and Martinez agree that the work that they put in to create this environment for students to build their confidence feels like a long term investment in the community.
"We're so comfortable with them, and I care about these people so much, and so much time and effort and years of hard work has gone into this for me,” said Ringvald. “I feel as though I'm making an impact, not only on the Richmond campus, but also in the lives of these kids. And I know that that impact is long term.”
Martinez echoed her sentiments, adding that a college mentorship network like SLI is something that most communities already have, be it a formal organization or not, and says that the experience of helping to build such a network from the ground up within her own community has impacted her immensely.
Kaufman summarized the optimism that fuels the program and its volunteers when asked what advice he would offer to UR students interested in community activism.
“The big systems are not going to change,” he said with a shrug. “So you find a way to become a change agent. Instead of working within the system, you work outside the system. And you'll find really good people who are willing to help you.”
Contact features editor Kelsey McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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