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| YOUTH BEAT
By Angela Rodriguez
“The youth are our future.”
This phrase has been slapped on bumper stickers, flaunted over classroom posters and tossed around so often that people have become desensitized to it. It is one thing to say these words and another to believe them.
Members of We Connect, a fledgling organization founded in the Salinas Valley, not only believe this statement but also hope to provide youth with the support they need to build a better path.
Founded in the summer of 2020, this organization is led by students and alumni from Gonzales and Soledad, cities that are considered “sisters” by residents. Their goal is to connect students with alumni from their respective schools who will be able to guide them through the transition from high school to the daunting life beyond, whether their path may lead to college, a vocational school or elsewhere.
The We Connect team consists of four alumni and six current high school students with equal representation from Soledad and Gonzales. The group is rounded up with an advisor from Soledad. This team works together to strategize the best ways to spread the message, the students offering insight on current high schooler needs and reaching out to their peers, while the alumni manage alumni connections and broader outreach, as well as planning how to execute We Connect’s goals.
“We have three main goals,” Ivan Ibarra Mora, We Connect’s community partnerships coordinator and advisor told Voices via a phone interview, “mentorship initiatives, mitigating barriers, and alumni connections.”
Ibarra is a Soledad alumnus, and currently a director of student services at Alder Graduate School of Education. He explained that mentorship initiatives would provide current high school students with advice from alumni, about anything ranging from school work to personal life. Two members on the We Connect team, Cindy Aguilar and Fabiola Moreno, work as mentorship coordinators. The two Gonzales alumni pair students with former students based on similar career interests and goals.
The “mitigating barriers” aspect of We Connect is also vital to its mission. The members of We Connect hope to bridge the gap between high school and higher education by informing students of resources that can help them pursue their ambitions.
“Alumni connections” is also a crucial goal for We Connect, since there is a significant lack of support for alumni once they leave their city, and many alumni have confessed to feeling disconnected from their respective towns once they enter college.
Ibarra is a firm believer in providing connections for students and alumni.
“If we seek to show that our youth investment goes beyond K-12, we must dedicate a space where alumni can continue to receive opportunities to feel connected to their community and amplify their assets and contributions in different ways — especially as it pertains to helping our current high school students.”
And that is where this organization began, with the desire to help the current students.
Jessica Herrera, We Connect’s finance coordinator and alumni outreach director, said, “I wanted a support system that was official, something students could reach out to.”
Herrera is a Soledad High alumna and current student at UCLA, and she was the one who proposed the idea for We Connect. While in high school, she and her peers struggled, and even though they helped each other out, there was a significant lack of support from the school.
“When it was time to apply for college, everyone was pretty hysterical,” Herrera added. “We only had one teacher to help us, but it wasn’t really his job.”
Since there was only one staff member who volunteered to help students, most students looked to people they knew. Herrera said she was fortunate to have a network of alumni in her life and lamented that not everyone had that support. Isela Perez, now a We Connect member, was part of that network who helped ease the stress of college life.
“College can be pretty difficult, especially for first-generation students, which most of the Soledad population is … but Isela was a huge part in me feeling okay in college,” said Herrera. “So I thought, ‘if we could create these connections (between alumni and students), we could be able to make college and high school manageable.’”
To realize her dream, she reached out to Ivan Ibarra Mora, who was more than happy to help. He connected Herrera with Cindy Aguilar.
Aguilar, currently a second-year student at UC Berkeley, had previous experience with starting projects for young people. While at Gonzales High, she began the Senior Swarm project, an initiative to help seniors through the college application process and prepare them for college life.
Aguilar knows the struggle of having to forge your own resources, and her frustrations were similar to those of Herrera and the other alumni.
“We were venting about all the struggles and challenges we had faced as we transitioned to college and how we wished there were opportunities and services to make that transition smoother,” said Aguilar.
That is why it was important to make We Connect a partnership between the two cities, said Isela Perez. Not only was it “easier to work with people who had already begun helping their town,” as Aguilar had done, it was also necessary for both communities, she said.
“Even though we are different towns, we’re basically built the same, and we understand each other. Since we’re both low income, we face the same problems where we do have resources, but not enough for the student population.”
They hope to expand We Connect into other cities like Greenfield or King City, since many Salinas Valley cities are alike in their need for resources.
Students with fewer resources struggle a lot when leaving their homes, Perez said. She touched on her own rough transition from high school into college life.
“I felt like I was at a disadvantage,” she said. “When I filled out a financial aid application, I felt really sad because I didn’t understand it. I felt so vulnerable and scared.”
Perez said she believes she would have greatly benefited from We Connect while she was in school, not only for the information she could gain, but for the connections themselves.
“It isn’t until you’re in college that you realize how important networking is.”
She mentioned feeling left behind while her peers advanced, some already scoring internships. “I had just found out about how to navigate and get resources. I felt so underprepared.”
“I don’t want anyone else to experience that.” Perez said.
We Connect has already started helping students.
Tawny Hoang is currently a senior at Soledad High, and We Connect’s social media coordinator.
Hoang said she wished We Connect had been created sooner. “There’s so many people I know, people in my grade, and family members would have benefited from this.”
We Connect has a lot of goals they hope to accomplish, all with the intent to help their communities, but they’re only just beginning their flight into the world as an organization.
We Connect believes the youth are the future, but the future will never flower if it is not watered. The future must be made from the present, and all that can be done in the present will set a sturdy foundation to build on.
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