When Adela Mendoza (‘16) began to think about her Liberty Fellowship project, it was daunting.
“I knew that I wanted to do something related to opening opportunity for populations that didn’t have representation, that didn't have a lot of opportunity, and quite frankly, didn’t have a lot of hope,” she said.
The population Adela wanted to help is now known as the “DREAMers” – immigrants without permanent legal status, who arrived in the United States as minors. Under South Carolina law, DREAMers are denied access to many higher education opportunities as well as professional and occupational licenses.
“When we have legislation that is limiting opportunity for an entire generation, that tells you that their voices are not at the table where decisions are being made,” she said.
To help DREAMers find their voices and their seats at the table, Adela created a leadership accelerator for Hispanic youth.
The Student DREAMers Alliance is Born
The Student DREAMers Alliance (SDA) is a one-year program for 20 to 24 high-school juniors and seniors at Berea High School and Carolina High School, both in Greenville, South Carolina. The program is modeled after Liberty Fellowship, and students participate in six monthly seminars throughout the academic year, work on a capstone project, and engage in community service.
James Campbell, Spanish teacher at Carolina High School, was instrumental in piloting the model and has served as the lead facilitator from its inception. He helps select students through a competitive process and literally “goes the extra mile” by driving the school bus to transport students to and from Furman University where the seminars take place.
“At our school, we have a high Hispanic population, and just starting to hear their stories, and seeing their performance in class...they were doing everything we asked of them. Their attendance was good, and they started graduating at the top of their class,” said James. “Then I started seeing where they were going to school after high school, and some of them weren't going to school, and some of them were leaving the state to go to school.”
Students who participate in SDA range in circumstance from undocumented immigrants to U.S.-born citizens. Regardless of their circumstances, the students are passionate about equal access to higher education and professional opportunities.
“To me, it’s a little different. Because while I am Latino, I’m Puerto Rican and mixed, so I don’t have any immigrants in my family whatsoever,” said Pedro Castillo, a junior at Berea High School. “But when my friends told me about this, I was very interested in it because everyone deserves the chance to go to college and just to work.”
SDA provides students a safe space for introspective dialogue, self-discovery, and examination of societal questions. They are empowered and encouraged to use their voices and tell their stories.
After hearing from the SDA, Republican State Representative Neal Collins became an ally in the fight to overturn the legislation creating barriers for DREAMers. He has introduced bills that would change the law twice. In the process of advocating for the SC H3404 bill, the students were able to raise awareness of the issue and garner more support than expected.
“Every time I’ve seen the students talk to decision-makers, I’ve seen someone change,” said James.
Support from Other Fellows
As Adela was creating the SDA curriculum, she relied on her fellow Fellows for recommendations on the readings. She also invited them to participate as guest speakers and moderators.
“I had to explain in very few words what was needed from them. They immediately said yes. I have yet to reach out to a Fellow that has said ‘no.’ It’s been a very humbling experience,” Adela said.
John Few (’08) and John Simpkins (’09) helped Adela launch the pilot in 2016. She describes the day when John Few moderated Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise during a self-discovery session as a pivotal moment.
“The kids were intimidated. Here was this prestigious judge who they normally wouldn’t have the occasion to interact with,” she said. “By the end of the session, John was crying with these kids. I will never forget that.”
John Simpkins flew from Washington, D.C. to South Carolina multiple times to moderate foundational readings such as Let America be America Again by Langston Hughes, and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin.
"My work with the students in SDA always is a highlight of the year and leaves me humbled and inspired by the courageous example these young people set for all of us," John said.
Windsor Sherrill (’13), has lead self-discovery dialogues with The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and To Be of Use by Marge Piercy.
“I think just like Liberty Fellows, they have that same sense of growth, and that same sense of connection with their group in the seminar setting. They really open up,” Windsor said.
Deb Sofield (’11), an executive speech coach, teaches the students communication skills.
“I do what I can to get them ready should they meet a legislator, should they meet somebody in the media, should they meet somebody who is just unkind. Let’s have an answer,” Deb said.
Several other Fellows have been instrumental in SDA’s success, including Ann Marie Stieritz (’16), who has also moderated and helped elevate SDA to national platforms, Scott Cochran (’13), who is helping expand access to higher education by offering scholarships for DREAMers at Spartanburg Methodist College, and Darrin Goss (’18), who is helping Adela expand leadership development for Hispanic leaders in South Carolina.
Impact of COVID-19
South Carolina's Hispanic community has been hit hard by COVID-19. Although the Hispanic community makes up 6% of the population, the latest data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control shows that they account for 11% of reported COVID-19 cases.
When the pandemic first hit South Carolina in March, the current class of SDA students had two more seminars scheduled. Those seminars were held digitally, and the students decided to pivot their focus from legislative advocacy to food security in the Hispanic community.
The SDA is creating food baskets with items purchased from local, Hispanic businesses containing culturally appropriate ingredients. They distribute the baskets at community grocery stores along with coupons to purchase food inside the store. The students have distributed approximately 300 bags, and they have received funding from the ONE SC Fund to support the project for three months.
Looking Forward and Reflecting Back
The SDA has received international recognition for its success. In 2018, the SDA was an inaugural recipient of the McNulty Catalyst Prize, and in 2020, the SDA again received funding from the McNulty Foundation for their COVID-19 response efforts.
Having just completed the fourth year of the SDA, Adela would now like to expand the program and follow the students through college.
“We know that many of our students will be the only Hispanic student in their class. We also know that college can sometimes be a very hard adjustment for them,” said Adela. “Having a network and support system in place to empower them through the college experience is very important for their continued success.”
The SDA students who graduated from high school this year include a valedictorian and salutatorian for the first time. The colleges 2020 graduates will attend in the fall include Clemson University, Furman University, Greenville Technical College, Spartanburg Methodist College, Queens University of Charlotte, and the University of South Carolina Upstate. Learn more about the SDA graduates and their future plans here.
Looking back on the journey to create the SDA, Adela remembers being afraid.
“Liberty Fellowship pushed me to take leadership in areas where I was very uncomfortable and that I might even be fearful of. I realized that unless I had the courage to speak up for these youth, how could I possibly ask them to speak up for themselves,” she said. “If you commit to the Fellowship, if you are courageous enough to open up, in the Fellowship context, there is so much that happens when you bring down your own barriers.”