By Tom Moore
After twenty years, Rainier Scholars is old enough to have multiple “generations” of students. Meet three of them here:
- Yael Tellez-Rodriguez, 24-years-old, Cohort 6, who is an Academic Counselor at Rainier Scholars. Her parents emigrated from Mexico.
- Angie Aguirre-Tobar, 18-years-old, Cohort 12, a senior at Kennedy Catholic High School who is heading to Brandeis University in the Fall. Angie’s mother emigrated from El Salvador.
- Gabby Donaldson, 12-years-old, Cohort 18, is in 6th grade at Seattle Academy of Arts & Science (SAAS). She is Hispanic and African American and has been raised in two diverse households.
They all share a special relationship, not just as Rainier Scholars, but as mentors. Yael was a Student Advisor to Angie throughout her entire time in the Academic Enrichment Program (AEP). Angie was a Student Advisor to Gabby in AEP. Yael, now a full time Rainier Scholars staff member, is currently Gabby’s Academic Counselor. Gabby, for her part, was an accountability partner for a younger Rainier Scholar (Cohort 19) in her second summer of AEP. An Accountability Partner, according to Gabby, is, “like being a miniature Student Advisor because you help younger students who are going through the same struggles you did.”
The Tellez-Rodriguez, Aguirre-Tobar and Donaldson families share common challenges. Two of the families immigrated to the United States searching for a better life, while leaving everything behind. All three families live amidst the inequities of race and income that exist in King County and the rest of the country. Preparing students to excel, despite inequities, is a critical part of Rainier Scholars’ mission. As Yael explains, “As underrepresented students of color we’re going into spaces that aren’t really made for us, so it is crucial to develop a sense of identity and self-worth in order to be able to navigate in those spaces. We call it culture identity resiliency.”
This resiliency builds from the hard work of getting ten and eleven-year-old students ready for a college prep education through two intense summers of classes and then following that up with ten more years of support as the students prepare for college and careers. It manifests itself in the scholars’ ability to hold their own in new and emotionally complex situations and is reinforced in the empathy shared by students within a cohort and the staff who support them.
In structured classes like Invictus and Conclave, students reflect on who they are and who they want to be. For Angie, Invictus, where students analyze and discuss the famous poem by William Ernest Henley (“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”) was an important time of reflection. It was a time where she was able to find her voice and use it later on, in high school, when she wanted to explore and express her identity and her ideas. The Conclave sessions allow a space for emotional release and introspection. In Conclave, Gabby learned “we all struggle, but in different ways; some people have it harder at different times than others. We need to be empathetic towards each other.” Adds Angie, “We’re always fighting for our spot, always fighting to find our education and that gets overwhelming, especially when you’re younger. But then, when you’re with your cohort you remember, even when it’s a little dark, there is a lightness that is possible.”
When the three of them are together, it is less a discussion between a 12, 18, and 24-year-old than a sharing of 54 combined years of experience. Three generations of young women talking about their struggles and victories, not just making room for each other but also redefining the space in which they and their parents, live and work.
When Gabby looks at Angie, she says, “Angie was my advisor for a long time. She understands me. If I need help, she is able to help me.”
When Angie looks at Yael, she says, “She was my role model. I saw myself in her. We are both Hispanic. We both come from the same kind of background, and she could always relate to the struggle I was going through.”
When Yael looks at Angie and Gabby, she sees hope. “I feel a really, really deep sense of pride, because I don’t think people recognize the power that women have, and in them I see hope for things to change, for them to show their voice, and show what they’re made of.”
Together, as they look towards the future, they hope for change. Gabby, a member of the Rainier Scholars debate team, an organizer for the nascent Black Student Union at SAAS Middle School and a soccer and basketball player, thinks she may become a lawyer or an architect. Yael wants to continue her studies in psychology, get a graduate degree and become a licensed mental health counselor to help combat “the stigma within communities of color and the vicious cycle it creates.” Angie is interested in biochemistry and plans to go into medical research to address social injustice in the current medical system. She says, “I want to go into that space and change the way it works so we can make medicine available for everyone.”
When she was Angie’s student advisor, Yael didn’t realize what a strong impact as a role model she was having. Now, she is moved by the ripple effect Angie and Gabby will have on future generations. “When you throw a pebble into the water, the strongest ripples are closest to where the pebble falls,” she says. “I feel emotional, because black and brown girls don’t always have role models who look like them. Having representation widens our horizons to believe in our own power. There will be so many younger girls who look at Angie or Gabby and will say,’ I can do that too!’ That’s what so inspirational. I envision Angie and Gabby as pebbles rippling through communities and being powerful agents of change.”