Alejandra Araiza has her sights set. She’s fifteen years old, almost sixteen, and well on her way to an associate’s degree—in addition to a high school diploma. Alejandra is a student at Johnston County Early College Academy in Smithfield, North Carolina and a participant in the Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) Levante Leadership Institute (LLI) Youth Program. “When I entered the program I was a very shy person. I knew that I wanted to pursue my education but I didn’t have the money or the resources, nor did I know what I really enjoyed to do in life,” she stated.
Alejandra was introduced to SAF’s Levante Leadership Institute Youth program through Hispanics in Philanthropy’s Triangle for Latino Student Success Initiative (TLSS). TLSS is a project aimed at increasing college access and completion for Latino students in three North Carolina Counties (Durham, Johnston, and Wake). SAF is a TLSS grantee. Not only is Alejandra committed to her participation in the LLI program through TLSS, she is also on track to graduate from high school in good standing with a diploma and an associate’s degree. North Carolina’s Career and College Promise allows high school students to begin taking college level courses as early as ninth grade, which will position Alejandra to enter college with two years’ worth of college credit under her belt.
Alejandra was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and she lived there until she was eight years old. It was a difficult time. Low wages combined with the struggles that accompany supporting a family pushed them to move to North Carolina. Alejandra’s father stayed behind for a year, which strained her mother who worked to raise Alejandra and her two brothers alone during that time. Despite the challenges they faced throughout her childhood, education has remained a top priority for Alejandra and her family. “My experiences in the LLI program have been very helpful,” she stated. “In the program I learned about financial aid and about the different colleges I could apply for to get my degree.”
SAF is not strictly geared toward college prep, although that is a major part of their work. As stated on the organization’s website, “SAF’s Levante Leadership Institute has been using theatre and arts to provide migrant and farmworker youth in rural North Carolina with opportunities to build self-esteem, develop leadership skills, and prepare them for higher education.” The program was practically tailor-made for Alejandra who, upon graduating from high school, would like to pursue a degree in Speech Pathology with a minor in Theater at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Since she became involved with SAF three years ago, Alejandra has participated in numerous discussions regarding farmworker issues, has participated in the annual HKonJ march to advocate for working families, and has attended the Juntos Academy, a weeklong summer program, at NC State.
The Levante Leadership Institute is specifically geared toward students and families of farmworkers. Alejandra’s brother and father have worked in the fields, and her father has also worked in both a chili and a poultry packing plant. Given her family’s firsthand experience, it was especially important and eye opening for Alejandra to gain some experience, through LLI, working in the fields herself. This opportunity, which she took advantage of last summer, taught Alejandra a great deal. “I think that [SAF] has impacted me a lot because I didn’t really know anything about farmworkers or their rights, and all the problems that they faced,” she stated.
As it stands, Alejandra has a lot on her plate. She plays the piano and the guitar, reads extensively, is into theater and film, and volunteers at local schools by helping the Spanish-speaking parents communicate with their children’s teachers. When asked which three words best describe her she said, “unique, passionate, and courageous.” Upon graduating from college she plans to travel to Brazil where she hopes to work with underprivileged children who can’t afford to see a speech pathologist on their own dime. She wants to help people in a deeply rooted and meaningful way. Participating in SAF’s program boosted Alejandra’s confidence and helped provide her with the resources she needs to get where she wants to go. As she said, “What I took away from the program is that where there is a will there’s a way. If you work hard for what you want you will achieve it.” For a young woman planning to travel to other continents helping people, this type of exposure to specific issues and injustices is invaluable. Alejandra is poised to use her clear ambition and shining intellect to make a substantive difference in this world.