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By the time Claudia Espinosa, Ed.M.’19, started working at a nonprofit in New York City counseling Latina adolescents who suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, she was well versed in some of their struggles.

She had moved to the United States from Colombia just a few years earlier, leaving her family behind. Her English, while decent, needed work. For many years, she was undocumented, which meant basic services and opportunities that allow someone to move ahead (like getting financial aid or starting a bank account) were not options for her. And she was lonely: in the pre-Facebook and smartphone era, connection to family back home meant only occasional handwritten letters and expensive phone calls.

But Espinosa also noticed some major differences between her experience and that of some of the young women she was counseling. She had moved here when she was a little older, at 20. Back home, she had gone to good schools and had a supportive family. And she was resilient — a trait few of the young women seemed to possess.

“Not all of them had it,” she says. “In fact, most didn’t.”

Claudia Espinosa with student

A L.O.V.E. mentor and mentee


She decided she would help the girls find their strength. In 2012, she started her own nonprofit called Latinas on the Verge of Excellence, known as L.O.V.E. Using a curriculum-based model, the mentoring program recruits local university students to go into high schools across New York City to be role models to young Latinas. In some schools, the program is taught as an elective health class. At others, the program is taught during advisory blocks or as an afterschool club. The basic curriculum, which is focused on personal empowerment, study skills, and college access, is tailored to the school’s particular needs. Sometimes the program runs for one semester, other times the full school year, which Espinosa says is the ideal. Program coordinators teach the classes. There’s also a teacher liaison and at least three mentors per school.

Key to the program’s success at any given school, says Espinosa, is finding mentors that the high school students can really relate to.

“Most of our mentors are Latina,” she says. “They’re college students, and that’s done on purpose. They’re young, with only three or four years difference in age, and so the students can relate: If she did it, I can do it, too. For the mentors, it’s, yes, I do get it. I do understand where you’re coming from and I’m going to show you it’s possible to get beyond this.” Mentors not only help the young women build self-esteem and motivation, but they also help them set and work toward goals, help with daily homework, and help them fill out college applications.

Claudia Espinosa graduating from Harvard

Claudia at HGSE Commencement, 2019

Before COVID, mentoring was done in groups settings, but Espinosa says that once the pandemic started, everyone went online and mentoring went one-on-one over Zoom. She hopes that once the pandemic recedes, they’ll be able to get back to some of the other in-person activities they do for the young women, including fun outings like tours of the NBC studios, visits to MOMA, and ice skating at Rockefeller Plaza. They also typically do college tours, including a trip a few years ago for 20 young women to Harvard, where they attended the annual Latina Empowerment and Development Conference.

Espinosa says she’s proud of how far the program has grown. What started with her mentoring one group of 15 ninth-graders from one school has expanded to include nearly 250 girls. Her goal is to double that number soon — and maybe even turn the program into a school.

“That initial group stayed in the program for four years and they all graduated from high school,” she says. One is currently a mentor in the program and studying to be a nurse. Another is an intern in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New York office. “But, I’ve heard many times from our mentees and mentors that they wished they had received the kind of education we provide in the L.O.V.E. programs in their high schools. I’d like to work to make this wish a reality and develop L.O.V.E. schools so young women can receive the education they want to learn in the areas of mental health, reproductive health, college access and career readiness.”

Learn more about the program:

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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