Empowering Immigrant Youth

In thinking about ways to increase educational and leadership opportunities for immigrant youth, sometimes it's helpful to see what other organizations are doing! This interview with Dr. Kathia Flemens, a Senior Research Associate at the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), shares the story of such a program in Washington, DC.


How did your organization get started?

Enlightened Initiative (EI) is a program focused on developing the leadership skills of young immigrants through leadership camps, retreats, and community building workshops. The idea to create an organization such as this came when I met two other immigrant professionals in Arlington, VA.

Mr. Cuong Hyunh, a refugee immigrant from Vietnam of Chinese ethnicity, grew up in California and has a background in law and policy and currently works at NASA. David Capo, a Puerto Rican American physician with an MPH background, works at the Center for Disease Control. And I, a first-generation immigrant born to Haitian parents, escaped political persecution from Haiti. When I met Cuong and David, we realized that had a lot in common. We all were involved in leadership programs that had had positive impacts on our lives, and we also were committed to the importance of community service.

However, we were noticing a rise in crime, violence, and destructive behaviors on the part of young people. We decided to create an initiative that would give confidence, empower and provide role models for immigrant youth from low-income households. We all wanted to make a difference in the lives of immigrant youth by sharing the opportunities, time, and resources that were made available to us.

What does your program do?

Our mission is to offer a safe and enjoyable environment as a strategic point of intervention in the lives of immigrant youths and support them in becoming leaders in their families, schools, and communities. In order to intensify the impact of intervention in the lives of the students, we provide mentors and focus attention on building leadership development skills.

The most important way we do this is through a camp that we hold in the summer. Originally it was held on weekends or and after school, but we decided to create a more intensive experience where students would engage and participate in the development of the activities in the curriculum while building a network of friends from across the country, and so the idea for a summer camp was born!

What is included in the camp?

The five-day week long camp (featured in this YouTube video) is held on the last week of July with activities geared towards stimulating interests in math and science, leadership development, building cross-cultural competence skills, educational, and life-training skills. This format was intentionally selected to build support and a strong infrastructure prior to offering an after-school program, which we hope to develop in the future.

Students participate in the development of lessons as the week progresses. A typical day would begin with a morning leadership or a cultural competency session for about an hour and a half. Following a break, a speaker comes to converse with students on leadership and/or Science, Technology, and Engineering and Math (STEM). Students gather together and incorporate what they have learned immediately through afternoon activities and "teach back" to the whole staff and other youth; afterward, more leadership or STEM sessions follow before dinner. Then we have fun games and activities to encourage friendships among the youth.

As the week advances, the students are motivated and comfortable enough to share their cultural differences and thoughts in activities such as: debriefing, "report back," "speak easy" and group interaction. The students become reflective on their goals in life as they engage in activities and make comparative associations between home and school life in regards to cultural values, goal setting, expectations and friends.

What are some of the highlights of the camp experience for you?

Even among the staff, thought-provoking conversations and changes take place. The team as a whole has learned from the life experiences of the students; the similarities and differences in the challenges faced by immigrant youths then and now. We also learned that as "life happens", understanding the perception of how different cultures handle stressors and trials requires flexibility and empathy, which was visibly depicted in a video by National Geographic we watched together on the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Many topics are discussed but the lessons on stereotyping, cross-cultural competence, and conflict resolution create a platform for students to open up and share their stories, which allows for learning and cross-cultural communication in an open environment. EI provides an outlet where "soft-skills" are developed and youth leadership development takes place. Guess speakers with a STEM background share their experiences and provide students with a plethora of information, resources and networking opportunities. Next year we are hoping to include a curriculum based more on culture competency, include more interactive STEM activities, add more speakers and add an extra day for reflection.

How are the students selected for the program?

Currently students become aware of the program through local organizations and education professionals who select students in grades 9-12 who meet the recommended grade point average and income requirements. This July 2011 was the first pilot EI camp with students from CA and FL with future efforts to target students from other states such as: Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Educators who would like to get involved with EI can gather a group of students — preferably five — who are interested in the activities stated on our factsheet and contact us by e-mail or the Enlightened Initiative facebook page. Educators who do choose to participate should be prepared to assist the students in fundraising efforts, attend EI training to become familiar with the curriculum, and participate in the five-day week camp.

This past year we shared, supported and worked with four immigrant youth from California and two from Florida. The issues they confront and overcome on a day-to-day basis are riveting and heartbreaking at the same time. Yet all of the students expressed how much they enjoyed the camp and the positive impact it has had on their lives as developing leaders.

Is there any advice you would like to share about working with immigrant youth?

A great tip for working with or selecting immigrant students to participate in EI or any program, is nurturing a relationship with the community in which a student comes from. It is important that a relationship first begin with the parent or guardian in order to build an element of trust. Once the relationship is established the educator may introduce the concept of an organization to parents and students in the school community. The aspect of traveling with students to a different state with a chaperone may be frightening to parents and students whom have never travelled with anyone other than their parent or guardian outside of their neighborhood. Yet, the rewards are endless and this assists educators to understand a student's culture, foster stronger relationships with the community in which their student live, and increase parental involvement.

Creating strong educational partnerships between educators and community is key to any youth development program and the success of immigrant youth. This opens the doors to endless academic possibilities and resources for students. Usually they say "the sky is the limit" but we at EI encourage students to dream big; go beyond the stars and reach for Mars!

Are there any student stories you would like to share?

Anthony Escoboza had a wonderful life-changing summer participating in the EI camp. He was one of the five immigrant students who participated in the fun-filled rich activities that took place this summer. Like the other students, Anthony found EI to be supportive and great preparation for what he was about to face this year as a senior in High School.

His family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States and settled in Florida. His father supports a family of four by working full-time at FedEx. Yet, what Anthony faced after the five-day week camp displayed his strength and determination as a future leader. The day arrived for Anthony to return home and he was so excited to share with his father and family what he had learned. Sadly a call came in from Florida informing Anthony that his father had been hit by a car while crossing the street. He sustained brain injuries and critical head lacerations and was operated on immediately.

At first Anthony was devastated and shocked and then was brought to composure. He remembered what he learned about coping, conflict resolution and focus, and began to trouble shoot who to call since his father, who made arrangements for his return flight, would not be available. After numerous calls, Anthony finally reached a neighbor and expressed in Spanish his concerns. Later his uncle and brother called and communicated the flight and airport pick-up arrangements. "What a way to start my senior year," Anthony expressed over the phone, "All I can say is thank you for all that you guys have done and for giving me this opportunity; my dad will be proud of me."

Anthony's father woke up from his comma 30 days later and Anthony's mom later expressed how happy she is to see how focused, alert and pro-active her son is this year. She thanks EI and wants to become a parent volunteer.

Any final thoughts?

A beautiful quote by Anzia Yerzierska beautifully depicts our efforts at Enlightened Initiative (EI), "Without comprehension, the immigrant would forever remain shut — a stranger in America. Until America can release the heart as well as train the hand of the immigrant, he would forever remain driven back upon himself, corroded by the very richness of the unused gifts within his soul."


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