As I reflect on my Hispanic heritage and the way it has guided my educational journey, I am reminded of visiting my great-grandfather. Perched on a flower-patterned couch, amidst the hum of an oxygen machine filling the mid-conversation silence, he conversed with my mother in Spanish. He would then turn to us, his eyes questioning, “Are you working hard in school?” During our visits, he would help me solve the brain teasers that scattered the room. As our meeting concluded, he would hand us a dollar and a butterscotch candy. His name was Theadoro Sandoval and he worked as a janitor at Peñasco High School, nestled in a small Hispanic community in northern New Mexico, where my family had settled a century ago. Despite working at a high school, he himself had never received a high school education.
High school graduation has become more accessible for many, however higher education remains behind barriers. In our family, my mother was the trailblazer, navigating the intricate web of college admissions and financial aid without the guidance of her parents or the Internet. Her determination paved the way for my educational journey. Hispanics, as a whole, lack access to continuing education. Nearly 80% of Latinos do not have a bachelor’s degree. This is about 20% higher than the general population.
My grandparents have always been among my greatest supporters. Their backing was evident before my academic exchange to Germany, an experience that profoundly shaped my understanding of education. My grandma, in particular, went to great lengths to support me, baking biscochitos or selling burritos to her cumpañeros at church. However, I recognize that not everyone has such a rich support system; in fact, 8 in 10 Latinos without a bachelor’s degree cite having to support their family or the cost of the American university system as a barrier. Education inequality is rampant, especially in Hispanic communities. As a Rising Leader, my mission is to advocate for a fairer education system, one that provides support to those who lack the foundations I’ve been fortunate to have. The National Alliance’s work supporting charter schools; which can focus on dual-language education or STEM programs like mine, offer a glimmer of hope in this quest for equity.
The Rising Leaders Initiative gives me the resources to empower my community, not just Latinos but any person who might lack the support that allows you to thrive in education.
Darren Paredes is a 2023-24 Rising Leader and a junior at ASK Academy in New Mexico.