It was late in June when La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano met two other students—Diego Martinez, from West Valley High School in Hemet, and Julia Melendez-Hiriart, from Ramona High School in Riverside—at the Southwest Airlines terminal at the Ontario airport.
The three students had never before met in person, but they were flying together to Washington, D.C., for the 2019 R2L NextGen week-long program, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).
The program—launched in 2011 by the CHCI with the support of founding sponsor State Farm—has helped bring 533 students to Washington, D.C., over the past nine years. Two trips this summer brought 103 students from 17 different areas of the country to our nation’s capital to learn about the federal government, meet important leaders, visit historic sites, and develop a deeper understanding about how they can make positive changes in their communities. Macy’s provided gift cards to students before their trips to D.C. so they could purchase professional clothing.
“It was started to help develop young high school leaders as they emerge and become more active on college campuses,” said Dennis Gonzalez, the CHCI’s director of leadership programs, about the R2L NextGen program. “They learn more about how government works, as well as civic engagement and advocacy.”
Getting accepted to participate in the program is no easy task.
“We had over 500 applications this year,” Gonzalez said.
Luevano said she had to go through a follow-up interview after the application process, which included submitting a written essay, a resume and a letter of recommendation.
“I had been contacted a few times to try to set up a call for an (application) interview,” Luevano said, “and it kind of wasn’t working out because of the time difference: After school here, it was 3 p.m., and in D.C., it was 6 p.m., which was after work hours. But finally, I got the call. … He was asking me questions just like any other interview. Then, just as it ended, the program director told me, ‘Well, you’ve been accepted.’ I was really shocked. I had never been part of a program that was so big. … Getting your round-trip transportation and your housing and meals covered in another city across the country—it was such a great opportunity.”
Rep. Raul Ruiz said he enjoyed meeting Luevano and the other participating students.
“Lizbeth told me that this was the first time that she ever flew on a plane,” Ruiz said during a phone interview. “She’s also from a farmworker family, like mine. So, the experience and the opportunity (for her) to find out how great and expansive the world is—to meet other students from across the country, and to expand her understanding of our country—is really remarkable. It could be a life-changer.”
We asked Luevano about the highlights of her time in Washington, D.C.
“I think the biggest was when we went to Capitol Hill, and we got to speak with our representatives. We (three) actually met with staff members of Rep. Mark Takano, who represents part of Riverside County, but not the Coachella Valley,” she said. “The other students met with the staffs of their representatives. It was pretty great just walking around. Some of the students even got to meet AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and I was really jealous that we didn’t get the chance to.”
The more down-to-earth components of the experience left a strong impression on Luevano.
“Another big part of it was the network that we kind of created,” she said. “At one point, Jacqueline Lopez, from Dr. Ruiz’s office, was at a panel discussion, and some of the people on the panel were from the Coachella Valley, too. It was really interesting that people from our background in Indio were in D.C., having this political engagement, and being right where all these big decisions are being made.
“A great thing about CHCI is that it exposes you to a broader definition of ‘Hispanic,’” Luevano said. “I’m so used to thinking about Hispanics as being Mexican, because that’s just what the majority is here where I live. So being around Cubans, Puerto Ricans and people from the Dominican Republic, and being able to talk to them—you definitely find cultural differences. Like: I always carry these packets of Tapatio hot sauce in my bag, and I’m so used to everyone knowing what it is. When they didn’t get what it was, it blew my mind. My roommates were two people from L.A., and another person from Miami, Fla.; she was Cuban. We all got to know each other really well.
“While we were there, we were able to get back to our hotel in time to watch the first Democratic Party presidential-candidate debates. Just being in a room with all of these individuals and being able to discuss anything that came into our mind, it was really great.”
The experience clearly made a huge impression on Luevano—and she made an impression on the people with whom she interacted.
“The students who come are really great, fantastic young people,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes I’ll be chatting with them, and I start wondering what I was doing at their age, and if I was being productive. When they’re having conversations with national leaders or they’re meeting with different presenters, they ask amazing questions. They’re very insightful, motivated and impassioned about what they’re doing.
“Even though Lizbeth seemed to be very quiet at first, once she got going, she became very active during the week. I think that the chance for her to connect with all the other students who attended was a great opportunity. I think what this program does is let all the kids know that they’re not alone, and that there are other kids who are really engaged in this stuff, too. Also, it gives them a glimpse into what college may be like, and I think they get more excited about their future opportunities once they’ve participated in the program.”
Ruiz said he was impressed by Luevano.
“Lizbeth is a very bright, intelligent, motivated, dedicated and caring person who wants to better herself in order to serve the community,” Ruiz said. “I’m proud that she is a resident of the Coachella Valley, because I know that she will accomplish her dreams and come back to the Coachella Valley and serve our communities. I’m really excited about this program and the opportunity it offers. Seventy percent of the students that go through this program become first-generation college students. That’s pretty remarkable.”
Luevano is part of that 70 percent.
“I’m applying to liberal-arts colleges on the East Coast to get out of my comfort zone and go further away,” Luevano said. “I’m looking into Bowdoin (in Maine) and Swarthmore (in Pennsylvania). I’m just going to be confident and apply.”