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The freedom to lead: Interview with Ricky Hurtado

Ricky Hurtado is the co-executive director of the NC Scholars Latinx Initiative (NC SLI) and a member of the NC Child board of directors. He was recently named to the “30 Under 30 in Education” by Forbes Magazine for his work in boosting high school graduation and college attainment among Latinx youth in North Carolina schools. While the 4-year high school graduation rate in North Carolina averages 86.5%, graduation for Latinx students across the state is just 80%. In 2017 100% of Latinx students participating in the SLI graduated from high school, and 90% went on to college.

Ricky grew up in Sanford, North Carolina and then took part in the Scholars Latinx Initiative (SLI) while he was an undergraduate at UNC, serving as a mentor for students in his own high school. After grad school at Princeton, Ricky came back to North Carolina to help lead SLI, where he has been for the last three years.

NCC: Tell me a bit about the NC Scholars Latinx Initiative. The program has had amazing success in helping North Carolina Latinx students stay in school and go on to college. What are you doing in this program that is getting such excellent results?

RH: Our program is really about building a village. It’s important to recognize that whether you’re talking about winning a game, graduating from college, or any other kind of accomplishment, nobody really achieves anything big on their own. It’s the support of a community that helps get you through the difficult times. Our work is to make sure that students have that community and that support so that they can succeed and accomplish what they set out to do.

NCC: What should education leaders and policy-makers learn from your model? Can it be applied to students from other types of backgrounds who have lower rates of high school graduation?

RH: Yes, absolutely. Students don’t learn in a vacuum, and schools don’t exist in a vacuum. The factors that affect student achievement aren’t just factors in the classroom. A student’s health, their family, their well-being are all so important to whether they can succeed in school. Policy-makers need to think critically about a holistic approach to education, one that creates a culture of learning by taking the whole student – including their health and well-being – into account.

NCC: How has the uncertainty in the president’s repeal of DACA affected the students served by your program?

RH: One of the main things we’re seeing among our students has been a really detrimental impact on motivation. We have many students and alums in the program who are DACA recipients. Just as an example: one student who is currently part of the program has 2 older brothers who were able to go to college due to DACA. But because the program was rescinded, now she may not be able to apply. She is very discouraged and wondering whether trying to go to college is even worth it. Without DACA eligibility she may not be able to go at all – she may not qualify for scholarships or be able to get a work visa because of ineligibility for DACA. It’s incredibly discouraging for youth who have been working so hard in school.

NCC: What advice do you have for political leaders on both sides of the aisle who need to find a workable solution to our immigration quagmire?

RH: A former boss of mine would use the example that when disability advocates were pushing for curb-cuts on sidewalks, many saw that as a “special interest” issue. But those curb-cuts didn’t just help people with wheelchairs, it helped mothers with strollers, it helped businesses get deliveries in and out quicker – it was an innovation in policy that helped the entire community, not just the people who needed it most.  If we start thinking about immigration solutions in this way, we can understand how solutions that look like they just benefit one community can have a ripple effect, and we can all benefit from policy changes that might appear to only benefit one part of the community.

NCC: What is your dream for children in the US growing up in immigrant families, whether documented or undocumented?

RH: I could quickly gravitate towards an answer like ‘get a good job, make enough money to stay out of poverty.’ But my hope for our students is that we’re not just giving them the tools to go to college and live a prosperous life, but the tools to dream about what their communities could look like. At SLI we tell them, ‘You are the future of your community. You should be thinking about not just what are your dreams for yourself and your family, but what does it mean to move places like Sanford or Siler City North Carolina forward?’ I think my dream for them is that they get to feel the freedom that they’re not necessarily held back by the circumstances of their families, and what it means for them not to leave their community, but to come back and dream about how we can push everybody forward together.

NCC: Serving on a board is a huge volunteer commitment – thank you!  What motivates you to serve on the Board of NC Child?

RH: Every day I see the challenges the immigrant community faces, in terms of health outcomes, education outcomes, economic outcomes. We only have the capacity to deal with one part of that puzzle at SLI – the educational piece. What motivates me is being a part of an organization that fully believes in being that voice for North Carolina’s children, and being able to push for reform of systems that allow children to really prosper and be healthy, and the well-being of families in general. It’s a group that’s thinking holistically about how all these systems impact our families. We need to have a commitment to equity and justice, to see all of North Carolina’s children prosper. It’s an inspirational mission and one that keeps me engaged with NC Child. Besides that, so much of NC Child’s work is focused on policy initiatives, but behind all that work it’s people who really care, people who are constantly keeping NC’s interests at the forefront, and really thinking about how we can make North Carolina’s communities better for everybody.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on NC Child’s website. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Rob Thompson

Rob Thompson is the senior policy and communications advisor for NC Child.