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Juntos offers 20/20 vision to Latinx families’ educational journey

Andrew Behnke and Cintia Aguilar, founders and developers of Juntos, recalled one of their favorite memories of the program. Back in 2007, they were getting ready for Juntos’ first family workshop at North Carolina State University. When the big night arrived, only one family showed up.

“It’s a very good lesson that has guided Juntos across the years,” Aguilar said. “Giving up on your dreams is not an option. There [are] always opportunities to move forward, and working together makes that happen.”

For Behnke, this experience highlighted Juntos’ purpose: to focus on every single Latinx family and give them the resources to guarantee their children’s success.

Now, 13 years later, the Juntos program has been implemented across 10 states (California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and Wisconsin), helping thousands of Latinx students graduate from high school and attend higher education while reaching their parents and siblings as well.

On Sept. 23 and 24, nearly 130 participants joined Juntos during their first national convening.

Juntos, which means ‘together’ in Spanish, is a program that provides Latinx students in grades 8-12 and their parents with the knowledge, skills, and resources to prevent them from dropping out as well as to encourage families to work together to gain access to college.

During the national convening, university leaders, educators, funders, Juntos alumni, and advocates shared their experiences with the program, why it matters, and why Juntos is here to stay.

Diana Urieta, co-developer, senior director, and extension specialist of Juntos, explained how education was the topic of interest within the Latinx community when Juntos was created, and it’s still a top priority today. “We are moving Juntos to its next chapter as a national program that helps students build citizenship with one goal in mind: academic success.”

She urged participants to place themselves in the shoes of an immigrant family and think about how the resources offered by Juntos could empower families and students to thrive. “We’re helping Juntos students self advocate in their schools. The majority of our parents report that communication was something that grew during their time at Juntos,” Urieta said. “Juntos is a place where stigmas are broken.”

Courtesy of Juntos

For Alejandra Huerta, Assistant Professor of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University, Juntos dismantles people’s preconceived notions of the Latinx community. When she told a stranger that she worked at a university, he immediately assumed that she was part of the janitorial staff. “Why was it that he thought the only job that I could get at a university was that of a janitor?” she asked. For her, Juntos’ purpose is to inspire students to reach their goals.

The theme of the first national Juntos convening was clear from the beginning: to empower Latinx youth and provide Latinx families with 20/20 vision throughout their quite often blurry journey navigating the higher education system in the U.S.

Several Juntos alumni shared what the program means for them and how it has impacted their lives. Erik Modesto Reyes said that before Juntos, the thought of higher education was stressful because, as a Latinx student, he didn’t know how to proceed. He’s now applying to NC State to pursue a career as an electrical engineer.

Abby Rivera, a current senior at NC State, explained how joining Juntos empowered her. She plans to give back to her community as an immigration lawyer. She’ll be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree at 19 years old.

Courtesy of Juntos

These anecdotes illustrate one of Juntos’ many family activities called ‘building the strongest bridge.’ Everyone has different materials to build this bridge, and what matters is that people acknowledge the importance of working together and strengthening the bridge with what they have.

“This has inspired families to build bridges to communicate with schools. Juntos has been the bridge to connect Latino families with schools’ resources, to connect universities with Latino families,” explained Aguilar. “It has been the bridge to connect English and Spanish. It has enriched the lives of everyone involved. That’s why Juntos matters, because we’re connected and we’re enriched.”

During his keynote, Scott Reed, Vice Provost Emeritus for University Outreach and Engagement at Oregon State University, shared that it’s time for higher education institutions to invest in disruptive innovations like Juntos. He said they need to avoid replicating educational cultures that aren’t catering to the needs of the entire student population.

“If we are, in fact, people’s universities, we need to identify and focus and adapt our approaches to be appropriate to the communities we serve,” Reed said during an interview conducted prior to the convening. “And in the case of Juntos, it has shown the value of adapting our outreach to be family-oriented, to be inclusive, to engage people in a different way than we have historically done it.”

According to data compiled by Carolina Demography, the Latinx population in North Carolina increased 28.2% in the past nine years, going from 800,128 in 2010 to 1,025,830 in 2019. Of the current population, 38% are children under the age of 18 and 39% are immigrants. Within the age group five years old or older, 77% speak a language other than English at home while 27% speak English less than “very well.”

The high school graduation rate of the Latinx population in North Carolina is 80%. Thirty-seven percent of adults 25 years or older are without a high school education or GED, while 16% of this age group have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Juntos is currently playing a role that is not being matched in the education system,” said Edelmira Segovia, Director of Centro Hispano under the UNC-Wilmington Office of Diversity and Inclusion and one of the speakers during Juntos’ National Panel. “We really don’t have competition in the work that we’re doing in what should be an equitable system. It is our responsibility to level our students and help them believe in themselves.”

Aguilar encouraged her local and national partners to let their needs be heard within their educational institutions. “Never be afraid to knock at the door of people. Administration sometimes doesn’t know what we need. So let’s help them to know.”

Courtesy of Juntos

For Kathy Rivera, Juntos Coordinator in Sampson County, the program is instrumental for her five children and continues to encourage her students to be the change they want to see. “Juntos is an opportunity for my students to see beyond their rural reality,” she said. “Juntos is a movement. Movement equates to power and change.”

During the convening’s closing ceremony, Keny Murillo, Juntos alumni and first-year medical student at UNC-Chapel Hill, shared that he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for the people who have supported him along the way. To be able to attend a four-year university, he and his parents made and sold Honduran tamales, up to 500 a day, to save up for his tuition. He sees this same drive and potential within his Latinx community, and it’s what makes him feel a commitment to give back and mentor other Juntos students. “We are your future doctors, engineers, and politicians,” he said.

For Murillo, Juntos has been a wide-open door for endless opportunities. “It’s about lifting our community and making each place better together.”

Carol Bono

Carol Bono is a bilingual multimedia reporter for EducationNC with a focus on ESL and Latinx issues.