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Diversity and Inclusion

Juntos Connects With Students Through Virtual Academy

Students and family sitting on a couch.
Two students from Catawba County are among the dozens who participated in Juntos Summer Academy online this year.

At Juntos Summer Academy, students in middle school and high school can “step into the shoes of a college student,” says Diana Urieta, Juntos’ senior director. They tour the NC State campus, eat in the dining halls and go to classes. For some, it’s a first glimpse into the worlds of engineering, agricultural sciences, technology and other subjects that inspire many to stay in school and pursue a college degree.

What could Juntos offer this year with campus closed and everything shifting online?

Urieta and her colleagues considered canceling the event, but Juntos’ coordinators who work in schools around the state said their students were keen to do something.

“They wanted the connection with us,” Urieta says. “They wanted the connection with campus. We made the decision to move forward with our first virtual academy.”

She hoped at least 30 students would register. Instead, the first virtual summer academy in June welcomed 61 students for three days of learning and discussion.

An Educational Experience

Juntos (pronounced “who-n-toes”) means “together” in Spanish, and seeks to live up to its name by uniting school administrators, college educators, 4-H groups and NC State Extension officials to keep Latino students on track through high school and onto college. Juntos coordinators work in schools across North Carolina — 11 counties were represented at this year’s academy.

Students who are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves sometimes struggle while navigating the intricacies of applying to and attending college. Juntos offers year-round programming to help not just the students but their families, who might also be unfamiliar with the American education system.

“I thought this was a really great program and what I always wish I would have had as a child,” says Alejandra Huerta, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. She grew up in the Salinas Valley in California, the daughter of first-generation Mexican immigrants who worked in the strawberry fields. Although familiar with the physical labor involved in agriculture, she was deterred from studying it as a subject. It was years before she learned about the science behind agriculture; now she’s an expert in bacterial diseases of plants.

“For a really long time, one of my central goals has been to expose more students in general to the agricultural sciences to try to change the idea that agriculture is only a labor-intensive job and specifically expose students from immigrant families to this really cool and exciting field of research,” she says.

Students at the virtual academy chose one of four career tracks to learn about: agriculture, health care, engineering and business. They were mailed equipment and materials they needed for their choice ahead of time. Faculty, staff, students and alumni from NC State and other universities led discussions and lectures via Zoom.

Huerta and two other professors put together a curriculum on agriculture that included hands-on experiments related to pollination, maize genetics and plant disease. One had students sample different flavors of honey then go outside to catch bees or other pollinators. In another, students used paper microscopes called Foldscopes to study microbes growing on agar plates prepared with fresh produce from their own fridges.

“Students were recording and taking pictures with their phones, and they were sharing them with us, and they were like, ‘This is really cool,’” Huerta says. “Now they have this microscope that they can use at other times or for fun. Hopefully that gives them a little window into the agricultural sciences and the multiple jobs that may be available to them if that’s a field of research or study that they decide to pursue. And that’s really the goal for us.”

Although Juntos primarily helps Latino families, anyone is welcome. Huerta, who participated in the program last year as well, says she enjoys seeing young people from different backgrounds and cultures bonding over their interests and experiences.

“The younger generation is very aware of race and ethnicity and working together for a better future,” she says. “That’s something that is really encouraging for me.”

Looking Forward

This summer’s academy was an unexpected success for Urieta, and she is thinking about other virtual opportunities. Juntos has also held local and statewide club meetings and a family night, all of which were well received.

Urieta doesn’t intend to turn the annual academy into an online event — it doesn’t have the same impact as being on campus. “But we now know we can do it,” she says.

She hopes that students who enjoyed the virtual academy will share their experience with their friends and communities.

“The reality is, Juntos is just a connector,” Urieta says. “The challenge to all the students is, how are you going to tell the Juntos academy story so that others can benefit from it?”

This post was originally published in NC State News.