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Juntos Academy Empowers Students to Push Forward, Together

The Juntos Summer Academy allowed middle and high school students from across the state to experience life on a college campus, establish friendships and mentorships and learn about college and career opportunities.

Make memories. Keep an open mind. Put down your phone and be present. Create a spark. Si, se puede (it can be done). These were the words of advice and encouragement from Juntos North Carolina staff to about 80 middle and high school students from all across the state — and Idaho — for the 2022 Juntos Summer Academy.

Held June 14-18 at NC State, the Juntos Summer Academy allowed Hispanic and Latino youth to tour and live on a college campus, learn about scholarships and the college application process and participate in career and life skills workshops. They also connected with professionals and college students through networking events and participated in a county-focused climate resiliency project in partnership with UNC Center for Public Engagement with Science UNC Institute for the Environment. There was time for fun activities like paddling on Lake Raleigh, movie nights and trips to local museums as well. Each day was driven by a theme, all under the concept of Juntos Le Echamos Ganas (We Push Forward).

Selfie photo of students, team captains and staff in paddle boards on Lake Raleigh
Students, team captains and staff stop for a selfie while paddle boarding on Lake Raleigh

This year’s academy was especially significant since it was held in person for the first time since 2019. It also coincided with Juntos NC’s 15th anniversary. 

“For our students, the Juntos Summer Academy is a time to connect with peers, college students and professionals who reflect their own journey as first- or second-generation immigrants,” said Bianca Wall, assistant director of Juntos NC. “It is an opportunity to see themselves on a college campus and have the experience of higher education. For most of them, it is the first time they set foot on a college campus and see it as a possibility for themselves. In-person programming brings it into focus and reality more than any virtual call could. Walking through the brickyard, sleeping in the dorms and eating in the dining halls all while being surrounded by people who support and believe in them shows these students that they are not alone and higher education is an option for them.”

“Juntos Academy brings students from all over North Carolina who are empowered through a week-long experience built for them and with them in mind,” added Diana Urieta, director of Juntos NC. “This year’s in-person academy showed the vital reality that young people thrive when they are in spaces where they have a sense of belonging. Juntos students can relate to the professionals and college students who poured into their lives during the week and be able to see their bicultural and bilingual roots as an asset that is welcomed at NC State.”

Students talked with recruiters at a college and career fair

In Their Own Words

Here’s what some of the staff and team captains from NC State had to say about the experience:

Karina Seebaluck (Psychology and Spanish ’24)

Seebaluck discovered Juntos through its Instagram account in 2021 and was hired as a team captain for its virtual academy that year. She wanted to return this year and experience it in person.

“I believe in the initiatives that Juntos makes to provide the best opportunities for Latinx youth who want to pursue postsecondary education. Information is power, and they provide it by hosting workshops about FAFSA, looking for scholarships, writing personal essays, along with softer skills needed for the real world (time management, mental health, etc). They also involve parents in this process, which is incredibly special, given how important family can be when making life decisions.”

At this year’s academy, Seebaluck said one of her takeaways was learning the value of trying new things and helping people step outside of their comfort zones. As a Spanish student, she also enjoyed the opportunity to practice speaking with native speakers while facilitating activities. In addition, she was reminded about the value of community.

“I learned a lot about the Latinx community this week as I saw everyone in their element: dancing, having meal conversations, talking about lived experiences,” Seebaluck said. “I felt like I was at home with Juntos because everyone was so welcoming and we have lived through similar experiences.

“Juntos embodies its name,” Seebaluck continued. “Parents, program staff and alumni come together to support the academic journeys of the students. This process is important because it ensures that Juntos affiliates will never be alone when approaching a challenge as daunting as applying and affording college. It also produces alumni who go on to receive larger scholarships and thrive at university, demonstrating that there is a space for Latinx students in college, regardless of what the population distribution looks like: sí se puede.”

Juntos Summer Academy students and staff walking the NC State campus
Juntos Summer Academy students and staff walking the NC State campus

Sebastian Rios (Criminology ’24) 

Like Seebaluck, Rios also served as a team captain for the second time at the academy. He explained that he was once in a similar position as many of the participating students, and felt a sense of responsibility to use his experience to help others. He also enjoys mentoring Latino youth and hopes to enter a career in which he can make a difference.

“I learned a lot during this year’s academy, most importantly that I really love doing this kind of work and that I can actually have a very big impact while doing it,” Rios said. “I think that the experience away from home and the feeling of independence is really important for students and families as this was the first time being away from home for a lot of the kids. This can help prepare the kids more for leaving for college. 

“I also think that it was extremely important for the students to be able to make connections with other students, captains and even professionals,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we learned that many of the students feel like they do not get a lot of support at their schools, so we made sure that the students knew that they could count on us for support and assistance in anything they might need for college or any kind of mentoring.”

A student climbing the indoor rock climbing wall in the Wellness and Recreation Center
Academy participants ascended the climbing wall in the Wellness and Recreation Center

Axel Flores-Roman (Industrial and Systems Engineering ’22)

Flores-Roman graduated from NC State in May and was a first-time team captain at this year’s Juntos Summer Academy. He had heard great things about the program from friends, and he wanted to give back to other students who are considering going to college.

“This experience was special,” Flores-Roman said. “It opened my perspective about life and renewed my motivation to excel in my post-graduate career. There are so many people with different backgrounds and stories that should be shared in order to help or raise overall awareness on providing resources to people that need it.

“This program is amazing, and I wish I got involved sooner,” he continued. “It informs students and parents that there are resources out there that help or guide them to what they want to do post-high school, like college, military, trade school, etc. It also builds their network. The coordinators, team captains and the presenters have amazing stories, and are willing to give back to these students. Ultimately, this program shows the students and families that they are not alone; there are people supporting and cheering them on in their paths in life.”

Students seated and looking towards an instructor in a classroom
Students participated in group activities and learned about the college application process

Holly Ellwanger, Catawba County Juntos coordinator

Ellwanger was one of several Juntos coordinators from around the state who traveled with her students to this year’s Juntos Summer Academy. 

“Being able to attend Juntos Summer Academy in person this year was incredible,” Ellwanger said. “Academy provides students with many valuable opportunities, such as meeting other students with similar backgrounds and goals, receiving mentorship from current college students who have walked a similar journey, networking with professionals who are invested in the future of these students, and experiencing a wide variety of academic, professional and social opportunities the students would likely not have had in their home communities.

“However, more than any of those things, Juntos Summer Academy gives students an opportunity to experience an introduction to college life,” she continued. “They come to campus unsure of what to expect — some are excited and others nervous, just like typical first-year students. Throughout the week, they must learn to navigate dorm life, dining, time management and being away from home. The students come away from the experience more confident and with a sense of belonging on a university campus, which is very empowering. Most of the students attending Juntos Summer Academy will be first-generation college students; many will be the first in their families to attend college, and they don’t grow up hearing stories of mom or dad’s college experiences or even that of brothers and sisters. The academy starts building the belief that they can do this and that college is attainable. It sounds cliche, but the academy has the power to be a change agent for the students.”

All Juntos Summer Academy participants in their custom T-shirts outside of Talley Student Union
All Juntos Summer Academy participants in their custom T-shirts outside of Talley Student Union

Alan Calderon, coordinator for New Hanover County (Williston Middle School)

“In my opinion, the academy was a great way for my students to feel what it was like to be a college student. From the variety of food options to multiple course selections, the students were placed in an environment different from what they were used to back in their home county. It is s crucial to show students in high school this ‘expansion to a new world’ so they know that postsecondary education is an excellent way to achieve their dreams. I learned that North Carolina has a lot of unique students with wonderful goals and dreams, represented by the different counties participating in the Juntos program. This program shows the way for students to find their passion in life, while at the same time finding a family in their ‘Juntos family.’

Learn more about Juntos NC and its mission on its website.