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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

A little more than a year ago, in June 2019, then-incoming La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano beat out hundreds of other students to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 2019 R2L NextGen week-long program, organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) and sponsored by State Farm. The Independent covered the story of her experience.

This summer, Luevano has earned another honor: She’s one of four Inland Empire students participating in a prestigious, paid internship with Bank of America’s Student Leaders Program. According to a press release, the students will engage in an “experience of leadership, civic engagement and workforce skills-building with local nonprofit OneFuture Coachella Valley. In light of the health concerns that remain in local communities, the program has been adapted to a virtual format. … As part of their Student Leader program, each student will receive a $5,000 stipend.”

The Independent recently spoke by phone with Luevano, and she said the Student Leaders Program has given her a chance to talk to a lot of people she wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

“Part of the project has been talking to specific community leaders who are local to my area and come from similar underserved backgrounds like mine, and also, talking to other national student leaders who might be from different states,” Luevano said. “This week, we just finished up the young democracy session. I came out of it feeling a lot more knowledgeable about the disparities we see across the nation. I’ve developed more skills to try to provide solutions for those problems. I’ve always been very interested in becoming an immigration-rights lawyer, and I want to practice here in the Coachella Valley. So, for me, it’s important to understand how to recognize those problems and how to be a part of that solution. The community leaders we’ve seen are not necessarily from one sector. We’ve talked to people from the private sector, the nonprofit sector and the for-profit sector—who come from different backgrounds, but are all focused on that one goal of helping society. It’s been amazing how much I’ve learned from every webinar.

“Bank of America has been so good about wanting us to learn more about issues like food insecurity here, but they’re tackling so many different aspects that will help me on my journey. There’s also been the mentorship project that’s teaching us how valuable mentorship opportunities are. … We were talking about how important it is to reach out to people to make connections. That’s how I ended up finding a job that I’ll be going to in August: I’ll be working as a legal assistant to an immigration attorney (Hurwitz Holt) in San Diego. I don’t think I would have been empowered enough to reach out to that immigration attorney if I hadn’t been coached to pursue those kinds of opportunities.”

The students have been working with OneFuture Coachella Valley, a nonprofit that “works to help all students graduate prepared for college, career and life—expanding and enhancing the local workforce so that our youth and economy thrive,” according to the organization’s website.

“Locally, with OneFuture CV, we’re working on a story-making project,” Luevano said. “Essentially, they’re connecting us—myself and three other IE-market student leaders—with community leaders and doing interviews. We’re drawing up articles from those interviews, and we’re sharing them across the social media of OneFuture. So, it’s a campaign to promote OneFuture and to raise awareness about the kind of impact they’re having on the community.”

Luevano and thousands of other Coachella Valley students had the in-person aspects of their senior year of high school cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The virtual (classes) didn’t really work,” Luevano said. “No one was really attending the Zoom meetings with my teachers, so I really felt that I had graduated in March. I didn’t expect I could have a physical graduation, but La Quinta High School did do a drive-through ceremony, which was really nice. We were really rushed through, but it was at least nice to get the photos onstage. It really has been interesting to adjust—and it’s been weird not to have felt that closure. It’s weird to think that I’m already a high school graduate when I haven’t had the chance yet to say goodbye to my teachers or my peers at high school. It’s definitely been difficult—but I definitely have felt a lot of support from the community. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Coachella Valley Adopt a Graduating (2020 High School) Senior program. It was a way for other people in the community to reach out via Facebook to a member of the class of 2020, and celebrate them with gifts and snacks, and things of that nature. That was really nice. But I do wish I’d had a physical graduation.”

After taking a gap year, Luevano will embark on the next chapter of her education when she begins her studies at Stanford University. When we spoke last year, she’d mentioned that in order to “get out of her comfort zone,” she wanted to attend college at either Swarthmore or Bowdoin, which are both East Coast schools. Luevano explained her change of heart.

“It was definitely (a decision) I was struggling with,” she said. “Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I wasn’t able to get on the campus of some of the schools I was admitted to. I was admitted to Bowdoin and Swarthmore, and I was heavily considering them—but I thought that I had to go with my gut, and I think that Stanford is decently far away for me to get uncomfortable enough. It was something I struggled with until the last day.

“My priorities have been shifting (as far as) what I wanted as a college experience, and I felt like maybe a larger student population would be more suited for what I wanted to do.”

Luevano wanted to emphasize how important her involvement with OneFuture CV has been to her growth.

“I’d been part of the Migrant Education Program and already had access to OneFuture CV, even before this Student Leaders program,” she said. “I think the kind of emphasis they place on education as economic development is especially important. One of the general sentiments that I always felt in high school is that a lot of people want to get out of the Coachella Valley. I see it even with some of my friends—a lot of people just want to leave, and they don’t want to come back. As I mentioned, I even wanted to go to the East Coast (for college), because I felt too familiar here. But long term, I do want to come back, and I do want to practice here as a lawyer.

“It’s been very valuable for me that One Future CV promotes this kind of narrative of people who have gone to college—UCLA and all these different schools—and have eventually come back to pursue their careers here. … Students and leaders should not only see those problems, but also be part of the solution of alleviating those problems here. People like Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, who went to Harvard Medical School—he still came back here to the Coachella Valley. County Supervisor (V. Manuel) Perez went to Harvard as well—and he came back. With what I’m learning as a student leader, I’ll be able to continue those initiatives here with a local nonprofit that has that kind of mission statement. For me, it’s been invaluable and very nurturing.”

Published in Features

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.”

Published in Politics