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Rebecca Elias Abboud | University Communications

Credit: University of Pennsylvania-Unive

Three Penn seniors want to dedicate their time after graduation to improving the academic performance of Latino high school students in South Philadelphia.

Nursing senior Yaneli Arizmendi, College senior Camilo Toro and College senior Alexa Salaswere recently awarded the President’s Engagement Prize for their project Lanzado Lideres — a bilingual after-school program centered around cultural identity for high school students in South Philadelphia. The team, which began planning for the program in November, will continue developing the project over the course of the next year.

Toro said their project serves a community that is “often overlooked.” Some Latino youth have undocumented immigration statuses or speak a language other than English, making it more challenging for social organizations to reach them, he explained.

The other members of Lanzado Lideres emphasized the importance of communication with those they serve.

“We hope to serve the community how they want to be served and not how we think they need to be served,” Arizmendi said.

Lanzado Lideres most closely translates to “launching leaders” and signals the group’s desire to propel students to success.

“Identity in any cultural setting is difficult, particularly to teens overall,” Arizmendi said. “One of [our] goals is to help students develop a sense of self-efficacy in students with this in mind.”

The project drew inspiration from the tutoring program Puentes Hacia el Futuro, which all three members have been actively involved in during their time at Penn. Now partnered with Lanzado Lideres, Puentes Hacia el Futuro is an after-school program for elementary school students in South Philadelphia.

“We ended up working with the initial need that we saw and [the needs] that Puentes voiced,” Salas said. “We then figured out how we can best fill that in ourselves, making sure our visions [and those of Puentes] aligned every step of the way.”

Although volunteering in nearby West Philadelphia is relatively common among Penn students, there is a need to create “new avenues for engagement in Philadelphia in both geography and in practice,” Salas said. This project was formed to address that gap.

“Philadelphia is so much bigger than West Philadelphia,” she said. “There are so many other communities in this city that could really benefit from college students who are dedicated to serving and learning from them in a mutually reinforcing way.”

Toro agreed, adding that this type of work benefits both the community served and the volunteers themselves.

“Our hope is to open up avenues for communication and collaboration between Penn and other colleges in the Philadelphia area to this community because it has been a great experience for us to learn from them and get to know them,” he said.

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