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Expanding Opportunity for Latinx Students

An innovative program, co-directed by Elaine Townsend Utin, Ed.M.’16, seeks to create new pathways to college — and beyond — for Latinx high school students in North Carolina.

Elaine TownsendIt began as a volunteer opportunity for Elaine Townsend Utin, Ed.M.’16, working with Latinx high school students across North Carolina. Now, she’s returned to lead the organization that set her on a path to a career in education.

Scholars' Latino Initiative (Sli), began in 2003 at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in response to the dramatic increase in the state’s Latinx population. Initially a resource for undocumented students from across the state who did not have access to in-state tuition or financial assistance, now the program has grown to a full mentorship program for North Carolina Latinx high school students and their families as they prepare to enter college.

“It’s so powerful to come back to the people who meant so much to me as an undergrad, and to do this work that is nourishing for the soul. Facing these challenges every day can be exhausting, but the work is as important as ever,” says Townsend Utin, who made the easy choice to join Sli as co-executive director after finishing her master’s.

“If I could have gone on Google and typed in my perfect job, this would have been it,” Townsend Utin says. “To be able to return in this full-time leadership opportunity was perfect. It was like the stars aligned and the stars are still aligning.”

When Townsend Utin worked with Sli as an undergrad in 2010, it was a student volunteer program with a cohort of around 20 students a year. Now, it is one of the largest service-learning intiatives at UNC, with a full-time leadership team and a quickly growing alumni network. In 2015, the organization was recognized as a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education” by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

“There are so many different layers,” Townsend Utin says. “We’re providing community, a support system for parents and students to have a safe space to ask questions, but also connecting to resources like scholarships or support to write personal essays.”

With the help of UNC undergrad mentors, Sli today works with over 150 high school students in grades 10 to 12, preparing them to enter college — UNC and others. The mentors help families understand the nuts and bolts of college applications, work with students on public speaking, and help them to examine the historical and cultural contexts of their communities.

Townsend Utin credits much of her time at HGSE with providing her the experience and organizational skills to thrive in this new role. While on Appian Way, she served as co-president of the Comunidad Latinx and as communications chair for the Alumni of Color Conference, and was recognized as an Intellectual Contribution winner at the end of the year for all her accomplishments.

But she says the work with her students has taken on even greater meaning after her time at HGSE through Christina Villarreal’s Ethnic Studies course, which became pivotal to her own learning and development and a major influence on the curriculum she is now designing.

“I felt like taking Ethnic Studies was the critical lens to do the work I’m doing now,” Townsend Utin says. “And to be able to bring back that curriculum to my community has been priceless.” 

Townsend Utin says this part of their work, which she calls “soul work,” is harder to quantify but no less important for Sli students — preparing them to be college ready and to navigate what will most likely be a predominantly white space is something she knows firsthand.

“I come from a rural background and an immigrant family, and I know the barriers that exist when pursuing higher education and work experiences,” she says. “The students become part of this familia to be able to tap into resources led by people from similar backgrounds.”

As the program has grown, former students like Townsend Utin have returned in leadership and volunteer roles, with even more serving in mentorship roles. Townsend Utin says that it’s a powerful community because so many of the students were already connected to it through their hometowns, while others have siblings and relatives who have gone through the program.

Townsend Utin is also using her experience from HGSE’s Technology, Innovation, and Education Program to help expand the formal and informal ways new students are reached and alums are staying connected, from Snapchat to a new platform she has been designing that will be launching soon for other Latinx professionals to connect with students, akin to a Linkedin for mentorship.

Last year, Townsend Utin and her co-director, Ricky Hurtado (pictured), were recognized among Forbes magazine's 30 Under 30 list as leaders in education for their efforts through Sli. While the recognition has been fun, Townsend Utin says the real honor is getting to do the kind of work that has always been her dream at a time when it has never felt more important.

“It’s a time of fear, fear of losing a family member, of experiencing different types of racisms,” she says of the current political climate. “It’s frustrating. But I find my hope in our community that is strong and will push through this struggle and I’m blessed to work with such brilliant minds and families who are so generous and care so much for their children.”

Photo courtesy of NC Sli