Several Harrisonburg High School students posed for this photo with their James Madison University mentors at a spring 2013 fundraiser for the Scholars' Latino Initiative, a program in which they all participate and which EMU helped launch in the Shenandoah Valley in 2012. (Photo by Carlos Galvan Alemán)

Undocumented Latino youth receive scholarly support, plus EMU’s helping hand

Three high school students brought from Mexico as children are looking forward to being successful college students, thanks to the local branch of Scholars’ Latino Initiative program (SLI), with which EMU partners.

“We’re all DREAMers,” explains one we’ll call “Dulce,” a high school junior brought to the United States at age 3. Dulce was referring to legislation under consideration by the U.S. Congress, called the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for children who were raised in the United States without legal documentation.

If identifiable names were not used, Dulce agreed to be quoted for this article, along with Willie, who was brought to the United States at age 6, and Raul, who came “half my life ago” at age 8. All three are students at Harrisonburg High School, dual-enrolled at Blue Ridge Community College. All three have visited Eastern Mennonite University, Bridgewater College and James Madison University, with the intention of being university students in the next few years.

Raul and Willie both hope to become engineers. They’re studying pre-calculus, though Willie also hopes to explore art. Dulce’s first career aspiration was for health or medicine. Volunteering at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, she’s shadowed a nurse, dietitian and midwife (even observing a birth), but also thinks she might pursue immigration law. Following local college visits via SLI (pronounced “sly”), Dulce leans toward “a small school, a religious school” while Raul feels drawn to JMU, where he’s spent time with his student-mentor, Sergio.

EMU was first university sponsor in the Valley

Dulce, Raul and Willie were the first at Harrisonburg High School tapped for the Scholars’ Latino Initiative program, launched locally in 2012 with EMU as its first university sponsor. Since its founding in 2003, SLI has grown from its base at the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to encompass five locations in North Carolina and Virginia. Shenandoah University is now part of the Shenandoah Valley chapter of SLI, coming aboard in 2013 in partnership with a Winchester (Va.) high school.

SLI focuses mainly on academically successful, underprivileged Latino students. SLI chooses the students it serves when they are in grade 9, via a competitive application process. While all SLI students are expected to perform well in school, those students nominated by the selection committee as “scholars” have additional expectations for leadership development, community service, and contact time with mentors. The Shenandoah Valley chapter of SLI currently has 15 members, seven named as “scholars.”

The program’s keystone is mentorship. Dulce, Raul and Willie have each worked for a year with a JMU Centennial Scholar who was matched to them by gender. If all goes as planned, following a three-year partnership, the graduation dates of the high school students and their university mentors will coincide.

Mentoring of students includes practice interviews, volunteer service

All SLI students participate in practice sessions for interviews, college preparatory courses and workshops, and where needed, English language study. They’ve volunteered at a soup kitchen, Harrisonburg’s International Festival, and nonprofits where they assisted in interpretation.

Sophomore Aracely – born in New York to Salvadoran parents – says after-school SLI sessions provide needed time on computers. Jose, born in Honduras, mentions accessibility to scholarships.

The high school juniors recently observed an advanced Spanish class taught at Bridgewater, where Dulce considered the students “pretty good for mostly non-native speakers.” In the upcoming year, SLI students will make site visits to other Virginia colleges and universities.

Sandy Mercer, recent SLI coordinator at the high school, said SLI students “have challenged, inspired me, and always found a way to make me laugh. I’ve already seen some beautiful, transformative things happening, and watched student leadership give vision and hope to other students and their families.” In October, as Mercer prepared for relocation to Florida, SLI students gave her a party, with souvenirs and hugs, while welcoming Hannah Bowman as the new SLI high school coordinator.

From UNC-Chapel Hill to EMU and further

Peter I. Kaufman, a professor with interdisciplinary credentials in history, politics, religion and leadership, said that before he founded SLI in 2003 at UNC-Chapel Hill, he tried to ascertain what factors are valued by college admissions officers. “It wasn’t board scores or GPA,” he said. “Public service and the challenging nature of programs were very high on the list.” In 2008, Kaufman moved to the faculty of the University of Richmond, where he continues to be involved in immigration and education matters in addition to his scholarly research, teaching and publications.

One of SLI’s biggest challenges is helping undocumented youth – the majority of those served by SLI – find pathways to higher education or employment. DACA (the federal memorandum, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) currently lets most undocumented students remain in the United States, but they still face tough hurdles in gaining admission to colleges and finding the funding to complete their degrees.

SLI’s students have interacted with area government officials, though Kaufman said that immigration reform itself is not the organization’s objective.

EMU professors and administrators have served on SLI’s 12-member Shenandoah Valley board and helped arrange campus visits. As an SLI partner, EMU promises that SLI students who meet admission requirements will be accepted and receive tuition assistance.

Program relies on donations

SLI board member Phil Helmuth, EMU’s executive director of development, credits EMU with being “the model school by being open to Latinos,” specifically those lacking documentation.

Mercer agreed, “EMU has been proactive, long before other universities were.”

The board has made fundraising its top priority. Says Helmuth: “We invite anyone who shares the vision and mission of improving collegial education opportunities for Latinos of need to make a contribution through the website at”