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Diversity and Inclusion

That’s a Rap

NC State’s Juntos program recently held its 2021 Virtual Summer Academy, where Latino students participated in workshops on college, financial literacy, wellness — and helped create raps about the COVID-19 pandemic.

A screenshot of a Zoom call with nine participants, all wearing hats

Leslie Hernandez first got involved in Juntos when she was a student at Starmount High School, and she immediately felt a sense of community and “togetherness” as the program’s name implies. It was also at the first Juntos NC Summer Academy she attended that she was inspired to become the first in her family to go to college.

“Being involved with Juntos allowed me to network, volunteer and further develop professional skills through leadership opportunities, summer camps and monthly club meetings,” she recalled. “It also informed my parents about college requirements and what the process is like for a first generation student like myself.”

Hernandez is now a full-time student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, majoring in political science. She continues to give back and stay involved with Juntos and even returned as a team captain for the 2021 Virtual Summer Academy, which took place June 15-18. The theme of this year’s academy was “Juntos Perseveramos,” and each event focused on students recognizing challenges, identifying strategies, and sharing strengths. As a team captain for the academy, Hernandez helped lead sessions including a law career workshop, which informed students about their Miranda Rights. 

“I think the students who were in that session really enjoyed that workshop and put their best foot forward to mimic how a case would be dealt with in a courtroom,” Hernandez said. “Another highlight was simply getting to know our group better during family hangouts in the evening. It was an open, judgment-free zone where all of us shared some of our difficulties both inside and outside of school. We shared thoughts and had conversations on how we have managed to persevere through this pandemic and personal challenges that we have encountered along the way.”

Current NC State student Sebastian Rios served as another team captain for the academy. He worked alongside two other team captains to connect with participating students and help break the ice for productive discussions.

“I wanted to participate in the Summer Academy as a team captain because I always love to improve my leadership skills,” he said. “I also believe that through my learned experiences in college so far, I could be a role model to at least one student, or help a student who might be in a similar situation that I was in, in high school.” 

In addition to talking about their experiences during the pandemic, three North Carolina rappers joined the event to rap about COVID-19, healthcare and other issues from the last year. Alexander Flowers, AKA “Doc ScholAr” AJ Flowers, founder of BrainSTEMology, led the Health & Medicine workshop. He coined and defined the term BrainSTEMology, ™ which is “the study of brilliant rhymes academic in nature incorporating applied science, technology, engineering and mathematics content.” There was also a talent show, where team captains and participants showcased their musical talents, poetry and other skills. 

“I loved seeing students speak up for the first time because a lot of them were very nervous, and virtual meetings can already be pretty awkward,” Rios said. “Our team and students were all so supportive, and by the end of the week we were all laughing, singing and dancing in the Juntos Zoom talent show.”

Sarahlee Morado-Castellanos, a rising senior at Meredith College, is a first-generation college student in her family who was also part of Juntos in Wayne County. She wanted to work as a team captain at this year’s academy out of a desire to help her fellow students better understand the college application process and learn about various career fields. 

“The participation this year was phenomenal, and I really enjoyed how much the students interacted with each other and the team captains,” she said. “This year, I got to hear some amazing work from many students, and it inspired me to improve my writing skills — and even my rapping skills! The teamwork between families and team captains was amazing, and I enjoyed how we all tried to give advice if anyone needed it.”

NC State Staff Members Get Involved

Several professional staff members from NC State and other partner organizations also led workshops for the Juntos Academy. Courtney Mulveney, career identity coach for the NC State Career Development Center, led a workshop on professionalism that introduced students to the eight NACE Career Readiness Competencies, which are skills that employers around the globe are looking for in the employees they hire. 

“Professionalism is hard to master because it is a combination of many skills and behaviors wrapped into one concept that employers expect students to be able to demonstrate with proficiency,” Mulveney said. “In addition, many of the perceived standards of professionalism are rooted in middle and upper class eurocentric norms, which can be a barrier for students who are in historically underserved and underrepresented groups. It is particularly important for these students to understand what professionalism looks like for them and what barriers they might encounter so they can be successful as their authentic selves at work. Preparation and early education about career readiness is key for student success.”

Mulveney appreciated the opportunity to connect with and serve a group of students who could benefit from her expertise and the services provided by the Career Development Center. 

“As a first generation student myself, I know how much having access to the right resources can change a life, so I want to step up wherever I can to be sure that others have access to the opportunities and services that can truly be transformational,” Mulveney said. “It was a joy to have a group really engage with me on Zoom and ask so many great questions. No teaching into the void and awkward muted silences for this group — it was truly a pleasure. Juntos is doing great work preparing students for their next steps, and that work is so important.”

Juan Cortes, a graduate assistant for NC State’s Juntos program, led another mental health and wellness workshop. Specifically, he discussed techniques for dealing with stress and conflict — particularly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other world events in the last year. 

“As a member of the Latinx community, I am aware of the stigmas around seeking out mental health treatment as well as knowledge gaps surrounding what mental health actually is,” Cortes said. “As I completed my graduate degree in counseling, I discovered many facets of the profession that debunked many of the myths that I had, and I wanted to share this information with the youth who will be the future Latinx leaders of North Carolina in order to ensure they didn’t have to wait as long as I did to work on their mental health.”

Cortes said that there is an undue burden for many Latino students of having to be part of two worlds: their parents’ world and the world of their host country.

“The first generation experience and the expectations placed on us to succeed for our families and communities can be daunting, especially when said family doesn’t have the navigational capital required to help us understand the systems in place at college campuses,” he said. “The combination of our family expectations and being the first in your family to navigate college can lead us to withdraw and feel isolated as we strive to acclimate, and this is a recipe for a mental health crisis. I know this because it was not only my personal experience when I transferred to [the University of California at] Berkeley, but it’s the experience of almost every other first generation student that I talked to.

“This is why I feel mental health and wellness is important,” Cortes continued. “If I can use my personal experience and the mental wellness skills I developed in my program to help the next generation feel empowered to identify their struggles and develop effective coping strategies, then we will be able to work towards completing college more effectively.”

Learn more about NC State’s Juntos program here, and learn more about the 2021 Virtual Juntos Academy here.