Photo: Getting a new perspective on politics, 11 high school students from the Dallas area traveled to the nation’s capital to learn about the federal government, meet important leaders, visit historic sites, and develop a deeper understanding of how they can affect positive change in their communities. /Courtesy photo
Five Irving high school students, Marla Espinoza Mendez and Jhair Galindo from Nimitz High School, along with Julia Portillo, Diana Uribe, and Jamilet Velazquez from Jack E. Singley Academy, had the opportunity to spend a week in Washington, D.C., as part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s (CHCI) R2L NextGen program. Altogether, 60 low-income high school students of Hispanic descent were able to meet with congressional representatives and learn how individuals can have a real impact on government.
Over six years, the R2L NextGen program has sent a total of 280 Latino students from across the country to Washington, D.C. The goal of the program is to introduce participants to Latino leaders, educate them about various issues, and encourage them to become more involved in their communities.
“It’s amazing to see the change in some of these students from the beginning of the week,” William Gil, CHCI Senior Vice President of Programs and Administration, said. “A lot of people usually think of Washington, D.C., as being far away and that our voices can’t be heard there. This program tears down those mental barriers and helps [students] become more motivated in participating in the political process.”
The Irving students expressed appreciation for the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill and meet with multiple representatives.
“At one point we got to see two politicians, one conservative and one liberal, hold a debate where we could ask them questions directly,” Uribe said. “It was really different being able to have actual interactions with people you usually see on the news or hear about offhand.”
“We visited a lot of memorials, and we got a real sense of history there,” Velazquez said. “I also really enjoyed getting to explore Capitol Hill. It really felt like one day, we could be walking down these halls every day.”
The students were able to attend a congressional breakfast, during which they were addressed by Representative Tony Cardenas and Albio Sires, as well as a panel of representatives from the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA). The representatives spoke about their experiences in becoming involved in public policy and government.
“A lot of us really enjoyed hearing from Representative Cardenas,” Galindo said. “His story was very inspiring. He had some very humble beginnings, but he worked his way up, and now he’s the representative of California. He had to try multiple times, and he really had to work for it, but he did it.”
Students were able to visit the offices of their congressional members, including Pete Aguilar and Jim Costa, and there was an opportunity to speak with Senator Mark Warner.
Overall, the biggest takeaway for the Irving students seemed to be that they had the ability to meaningfully participate in the democratic process and affect change.
“My voice matters,” Velazquez said. “This trip made me think my dreams are not as far away as I thought they were. I got to speak with a lot of leaders, and I realized that the best leaders are good listeners who listen and care about the people they represent so that they can help them.”
“I saw that a lot of other students were also determined to make changes,” Galindo said. “If you want that to happen, you have to go for it and try as many times as you need to.”
“At the beginning, I thought it was just a cool trip, since I’d never left Texas before,” Uribe said. “D.C. seemed out of reach because of where I am on the social totem pole. Before, I never really cared much about how the country was run, but after talking to people who really cared and seeing how big a voice Hispanics really have in this county, I feel really proud and privileged to live here.”