By Tere González García, Executive Director, Circle de Luz, and +SocialGood Advisor
On International Day of Education, attention turns to prioritizing education to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. From Circle de Luz, we join the international call to action to close the gap in access to quality education for all girls and women.
What does a small nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina, have to do with International Day of Education? Well, everything! Because from our corner of the world, we have been working for the past 15 years at the grassroots level to radically empower young Latinas through mentorship and holistic programming to develop resilience, confidence, and authenticity as they complete high school and pursue further education. From mental health to career readiness to family advocacy, we address the disproportionate challenges Latinas face to succeed in school, follow the professional path of their choice, and boost their own upward mobility.
Did you know that in the United States just over a quarter of Latinas hold a college degree, compared to slightly more than half of white women and slightly less than half of white men? Before the pandemic, Latinas made significant progress by almost doubling their attainment of associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degrees, outpacing the rate of Latinos and non-Latina counterparts. However, these hard-won gains took a hit during the COVID-19 crisis, with a decline of over six percentage points in Latina enrollment in community colleges nationwide.
It is unfortunately no secret that students of color, particularly girls and women, across the U.S. face disproportionate barriers to accessing quality education and professional advancement. With the Latinx community representing the fastest-growing population of color in the country, our work is cut out for us. In North Carolina alone, this community grew by 178% over the past 20 years.
Research by The Education Trust, an advocacy organization, indicates that Latinx students have less access to high-quality pre-K and attend schools that are more poorly funded. They also have less access to experienced teachers, school counselors, and a full range of math or science courses, among other programs and resources.
Here are three actions we are taking at Circle de Luz to ensure young Latinas have a stronger footing in education and their future careers:
1.Responding to the crisis, adapting to the new normal — and then adapting again
Quick response and adaptation skills have been the name of the game for every school and organization around the world for the past few years. The shift to virtual education models during the pandemic and the digital divide created significant hardship for our students. We worked with one of our families to re-enroll a student who missed her first semester due to technology issues.
We adapted to pandemic lockdowns and leveraged the outdoors or technology whenever possible to deliver meaningful and intentional programs to accompany our students and families during a very uncertain time.
Besides internet connectivity, the pandemic created another set of unique challenges for the families we work with. The team quickly mobilized to learn the needs of our members and partnered with them and other organizations to tackle issues such as food insecurity, access to cleaning supplies and protective equipment, mental health and physical well-being resources, COVID-19 testing, and vaccination information, among others.
While we continue to adapt, we know the effects of this crisis will be felt for years to come at the individual, family, and community levels. However, at this time, we are delighted to have restarted our in-person programming and to be reigniting our community’s vibrant energy through a wide array of activities and a full offering of resources and support.
2. Prioritizing a holistic approach and mental health
School grades and graduation rates are only the tip of the iceberg. We recognize that multiple factors affect a student’s academic engagement and performance. From accessing food, healthcare, and transportation to tackling immigration challenges and family dynamics, it is vital to address each layer of well-being intentionally.
At Circle de Luz, we carefully curate student and family activities for the six years they participate in our program. We understand aspirations and choices for the future not only come from formal instruction but from access to varied experiences and resources. Whether it is volunteering at a horse farm, talking to professional women from all industries, cooking with classmates, filling out financial aid applications, running a 5K, journaling, preparing for job interviews, or celebrating Día de los Reyes, Circle de Luz provides a safe space and comprehensive journey.
Over the past 15 years, we have seen our students proudly pursue their dreams. Some have become economists, some are working in consulting, others work on immigration law, others have gone into academia or entrepreneurship. We have students who just received acceptance letters and scholarships to their top three colleges and are excited for what is coming. Some of our youngest alumni are already rocking at the nursing program at Central Piedmont Community College and another one is in Princeton University studying computer science. Many of our alumni, volunteers, and community members stay in touch even after a long time. Some of them still get together and have seen their kids grow. The friendships and support network created at Circle de Luz have proven to be truly long lasting! Watch this video for some inspiring stories!
We place great emphasis on mental health and partner with individual and family therapists, school counselors, and social workers to work with our students and their families. The demand is high and that is a good sign. This means stigma around mental health is decreasing within our community and that our ecosystem of support, self-care, and empathy keeps on strengthening. A challenge we now face is finding enough bilingual or Spanish-speaking therapists in the area. We are incredibly thankful to the partners currently supporting us and are looking for more!
Studies have shown that young adults who face an opportunity gap but have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college than those who did not have a mentor. We firmly believe mentoring is key in preparation for education after high school graduation, whether that means a collegiate path or a different educational choice.
3. Co-creating culturally attuned solutions
Circle de Luz is Latina-founded and led, and 100% of our students and families are of Latinx origin. Some of them are immigrants, and others are born in the United States Among them, there is a mix of monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual individuals.
It is critical for our organization to provide translated information and resources. And to also prioritize supporting our members in navigating the school system, referral applications, financial aid forms, and multiple processes in a language they are comfortable in and accompanied by a person who understands their culture and has their best interest in mind.
We advocate for inclusive and equitable practices everywhere we go and encourage others to challenge their biases and assumptions about the Latinx community in the United States That is also part of lifelong education.
Do any of these actions resonate with you?
Tell us on social media @circledeluz how you or your organization are celebrating International Day of Education and working to achieve SDG 4: To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Today is a great day to invest in people and prioritize education! Whether you are reading this on International Day of Education — or any other day — take the opportunity to support grassroot organizations advancing access to education and career readiness for communities of color.