How An Engineering Program Empowers Young Latinos and Dads

Encuentros Engineering Academy

Welcome to the LatinoDad College Series in partnership with Quetzal Mama to bring you guidance on getting your kids on the college track.

Quetzal Mama

I’m sitting in the third row of my son’s graduation ceremony.  My chin is quivering as I watch 14 bright, respectful and empowered Latino high school students walk across the stage. Emilio, and 13 other Latino males just completed the 2018 Encuentros Engineering Academy at the University of California, San Diego.  This was a first-ever, pilot program.

You matter.  These young men matter.  What we’re doing here matters.” – Dr. Rivas

I can tell you every single Latinx parent in that room was wiping away tears.  Yes, the fathers too. They were feeling proud their sons made it to this point.  Making it here meant their young men were destined to attend the University of California, a Cal State, or a private 4-year campus.  And, their sons would be engineering majors.

The Founder of Encuentros Leadership is Dr. Roberto Rivas.  As Dr. Rivas walked down the aisle, he made eye contact with every one of the parents, conveying without words, “You matter.  These young men matter.  What we’re doing here matters.”

Every time one of the students spoke, I got a lump in my throat.  Each student spoke of the rare opportunity to listen to platicas of UCSD professors.  Some of these professors included Dr. Cabrales who is doing groundbreaking research and has his own lab:  Functional Cardiovascular Engineering Laboratory. Or, Dr. Olivia Graeve – the first Latina Engineering Professor at UCSD who teaches Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

A few days earlier, all of the fathers of these young men attended the Noche del Padre.  Here, the young men told their fathers (some for the first time) they loved and appreciated them.  The fathers told their sons (some for the first time) they loved them too. Moms are not allowed at this event.

This event is rare in our community.  We don’t often hear about programs or events focused on Latino males.  And, we rarely hear about events or program that revere Latino dads. This program does both.  As a mom, I’m thankful Emilio can bond with his father. That he can meet other Latino males who are interested in STEM.  That he’s surrounded by his peers who are also on track to a 4-year college. When Emilio is the only Latino male in his AP Physics or AP Calculus class, he receives a daily reminder that he’s the only one.  I can’t change that for him, but I can place him in an environment with other Latino males.  I know he’ll grow stronger and more confident after living a week in the dorms at UCSD, surrounded by Latino peers, Latino mentors, and listening to Latino professors.

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To the dads reading this article, I want to demonstrate how impactful an experience like this can have on our young men.  My son is somewhat shy and never wrote rap lyrics – let alone performed them in front of a huge audience! Yet, when he joined Encuentros Leadership, he felt a sense of belonging and validation that compelled him to want to speak his truth.  At the graduation event, Emilio composed and performed a 2-minute rap.  It was dedicated to his abuelo José (who died of cancer) and his young cousin Javier (a cancer survivor).  Emilio’s performance is a manifestation of the encouragement, support, and confidence that grew out of that environment.  What would your student gain by attending a Latinx program like this?  How would they grow? How would it impact their future academic goals?

Now, this article isn’t a review of their program (although easily 10/10!). All of my articles focus on specific strategies and methods to increase odds of admission at selective colleges.  I shared this intro about Encuentros to emphasize how programs like this can give your students a significant advantage in their admission odds.  Programs like Encuentros Leadership are directly aligned with college admission strategies that benefit your student in 3 ways.

Strategy 1 – Demonstrates Ideal Characteristics.  Our communities of color rarely have opportunities to engage in these types of program.  The reason they are unavailable is because our schools don’t fund these programs. It then becomes necessary for outside folks (like Dr. Rivas) to create these programs and find their own funding.  So, when a college applicant lists a program like Encuentros or the Quetzal Mama Scholars Program, it signals to the admission folks many pluses. It indicates resourcefulness of the student. Determination.  And yeah, ganas.  It also represents the vetted academic strengths of the student.  In other words, this must be a standout student to have been nominated or selected to attend this rare program.

Strategy 2 – Demonstrates Cultural Authenticity.  Cultural authenticity is an ideal trait, coveted by admissions folks.  It signals this student (1) positively identifies with his/her racial/ethnic identity and culture; (2) holds value in advocating for their cultural group; (3) feels comfortable in an environment surrounded by cultural peers.  This unique trait makes a student valuable because s/he brings a different set of life experiences and perspective to the undergraduate campus. Because this student embraced our rich Latinx culture, they will likely approach academic challenges differently.  They may flip discussions on certain topics. They may bring novel ideas to their classrooms, enlightening their peers. But, admission folks also recognize the selfish reasons for cultural authenticity, as cited in Natasha Warikoo’s “Diversity Bargain.”

Strategy 3 – Demonstrates Interest in Major.  Most students do not trouble-shoot their admission applications until late in their high school career.  In reality, fall of their senior year. Why don’t they? Because most of our students don’t have academic advisors or college counselors coaching them. By the time they’ve begun to populate their applications, they realize they haven’t done much to demonstrate interest in their major.  In fact, on most applications there are specific essay prompts asking the student to speak about their favorite academic subject. By participating in programs like the Engineering Academy of Encuentros Leadership, or any other discipline-specific focused program, your student can cite engagement, interest, and passion for their major.

If the graduation description didn’t get you, I’m hoping the rap performance did. Either way, it’s important our community recognizes the significant value in encouraging our students to attend culturally authentic programs.  These programs will inspire them. They’ll be surrounded by peers in whom they can relate. They’ll learn more about their intended major. They’ll gain admission points.  Most importantly, they’ll be validated in their journey to a 4-year college.

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