Academy marks 10 years of shaping young Hispanic/Latino leaders

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A myth of failure hinders Hispanic high school students before they are ready to apply for college. Often they are labeled by school officials: “They have not managed English and other requirements.” “They are not well prepared and will not be able to attend college.” “They are most likely to quit school if they get in.”

Immigrant parents may not speak the language or be familiar with the U.S. educational processes, so they have difficulty helping their children with higher education.

Students tend to get so lost in the web of institutional processes, family needs and limited access to education that they overlook how to get to college. They end up not going or enrolling in technical programs or two-year community college.

Nearly 10 years ago, a group of United Methodist Hispanic pastors began working with the Mexican-American Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. They started a program that could fill the gaps left by educational institutions and help guide Latino and Latina United Methodist students in pursuit of higher education opportunities. Students and faculty talked about the program before Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

The program was geared to Hispanic/Latino students who could guide, mentor and facilitate leadership formation among high school students, with the hope they could attend college.

The pastors formed an advisory group that designed a leadership curriculum, recruited the first group of 20 United Methodist Hispanic/Latino high school students from local churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and organized the first Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy.

Intensive program

The Hispanic Youth Leadership Academy has become a United Methodist leadership initiative that provides an intensive summer leadership academy and long-term mentoring and guidance around topics of higher education, Hispanic/Latino identity, God’s calling and United Methodist studies. The goal is to help students consider and prepare for vocations in ministry and leadership in the church, academia and community.

The leadership academy, open to high school and college undergraduate Hispanic/Latino students, is now offered at three United Methodist educational institutions: Boston University School of Theology, Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln and Adrian College in Michigan.

Each summer, several academies are led by student leadership teams of facilitator-mentors.  College students lead high school students, seminary students lead college students, and doctoral students and pastors support the teams of seminary students. The National Association of Latina United Methodist Clergywomen and Boston University School of Theology provide national logistical and administrative support.

“During its first 10 years, the journey has been challenging and at the same time rewarding, since we have seen Latino UM students grow into their leadership as they complete high school, college and seminary,” says the Rev. Cristian De La Rosa, HYLA national coordinator and Boston University School of Theology faculty member. An anniversary celebration was held at Boston University School of Theology on Aug. 3.

The program has trained 980 youth and young adults in its first decade.

Alexis Gonzalez, a high school senior from Huntington Park United Methodist Church in Huntington, California, improved his leadership, spirituality and “getting closer to God” thanks to the academy. “Before, I was shy and can now speak out and ask for feedback from the youth,” he says.

Discerning God’s call

The leadership academy challenges students to discern their call to serve God and God’s people. De La Rosa says that students are asked what they believe God is calling them to do and how they will prepare to serve.

For Iliana Gonzalez, a 23-year-old immigrant student from Jalisco, Mexico, the academy has been pivotal in the way she sees herself in college. “HYLA opens to me new horizons to see, explore and make better decisions into my life, education and, of course, in my faith.”

HYLA established a curriculum with a three-year cycle.

The first year, students explore their relationship with God and the church, consider the basics about The United Methodist Church as an institution, and strengthen their identity as United Methodist Hispanic/Latinos in a U.S. context.

The second-year students are immersed in academic preparation requirements with orientation about the process for applying to colleges and universities, visits with admissions offices of United Methodist institutions of higher learning, formulating a plan for higher education and considering what they think God is calling them to do.

Life changing

During their third year, participants reflect upon their experience of intentional service in a local congregation, campus ministry or in the leadership of the church (a requirement between their second and third year), and they refine their understanding of call and their plan for college or graduate school.

In that last year, they also learn about the ordination process and other possible ministries within The United Methodist Church. The academy emphasizes shaping the formation of Hispanic/Latino United Methodist leaders in partnership with local congregations, general agencies, Latino clergy, and the denomination’s colleges and seminaries.

Iliana Gonzalez is transferring to the University of Texas into an undergraduate program in Religious Studies, then plans to apply to Perkins to earn her master of divinity degree.

“After that, only God knows what he will have for me,” she says.

High school student Alexis Gonzalez says the academy helped him with both his leadership skills and getting closer to God. “It has changed the way I lead my youth as my second year serving as youth group president,” he says. “Before, I was shy, and now I can speak out and ask for feedback from the youth.”

10th celebration

A 10th anniversary celebration, held in August at Boston University School of Theology, highlighted the advancement of academy graduates from high school, college and seminary.

Speakers at the event included high school, college and seminary students who graduated from the program. Two United Methodist Hispanic pastors — the Revs. Edison De Arco and David Martinez — talked about the impact the academy’s youth are making in local congregations and the church in general. Some program graduates are in seminary, one is working with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, and most have gone on to earn college and graduate degrees.

Daniel Cuevas described how some of the young high school, college and seminary leaders shared that they found their calling to ministry at the leadership academy. “They gave us encouragement to keep HYLA growing.”

Cuevas, from Puerto Rico, started the program while in high school. He is now in college and plans to attend graduate school while being active in the work God has for him.

The leadership academy will continue to refine its curriculum with the assistance of its participants. It will organize new sites in the Western and the Southeastern jurisdictions and seek ways to increase its financial resources. Financial stability and staffing for national coordination are ongoing challenges.

Jeaned Liborio, 18, from Huntington Park United Methodist and college freshman, said the academy has helped build her up and express herself. “Before, I wouldn’t expect myself to speak up. HYLA has helped to motivate me to speak up.”

Bachus is a freelance editor and writer for United Methodist Communications residing in Nashville, Tenn.

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