To Abram Fernandez, becoming involved with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation as a scholar was about more building his resume and gaining leadership opportunities. It opened the door for him to connect with his Mexican American culture and identity and share it with the students he serves in Kansas City.
It was an American history professor at William Jewel College who first introduced Abram to the program. “He noticed that I had written a lot of papers regarding Mexican American history and Mexican history,” Abram said. “So, he sent me a couple of links to see if I was interested in any of a number of opportunities. One of them was for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.”
“It’s really the beginning of opening up and becoming more and more proud of who I am, of where my parents are from and of my own culture and heritage.” Prior to going to college, Abram grew up in a community that was predominately Mexican immigrant families and Latinos, like his parents. At home, he never really felt like a minority or gave much thought to his culture. “When I moved to Missouri [for college], I was there with maybe 12 Latinos on campus. Suddenly I felt a very big disconnect going from a place where you’re one of the ethnic majorities to being the minority.”
Through the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Abram found he had the time and space to reflect on his experiences, learn about his culture and explore what it means to be Latino. “I started thinking more about race, culture and ethnicity and I really started to reconcile with my own experiences. That’s when I started writing more about these experiences and started performing poetry at open mics and trying to get published in literary magazines.”
Now, Abram is using his pride for his identity as a Mexican American and as a history buff to connect with the students he serves. Marcos* One of the students he mentors and tutors is a Mexican immigrant. “He’s got a great wrap on conversational English. It’s just reading and writing that he struggles with.” To build a relationship with Marcos, Abram began speaking Spanish to him. “It was just little things, like saying hey or reminding him to stay on task or put away his phone, but I think it went a long way.”
It was the first of many “milestones” in their relationship, Abram said. The next of which was being able to write a letter to Marcos’ mom, in Spanish, recommending that her son stay after school for additional tutoring with him.
In the afterschool space, “that's when we started getting most of our work done, we'd go to the library and focus on vocab and focus on our fundamentals for English grammar and writing essays.”
Marco’s skills and confidence in reading and writing English have grown tremendously this year. When Marcos was asked to write a research paper for his History class, he immediately knew he wanted to explore and learn about the Holocaust. “I told him I could help him. I took two classes in college, one on World War II history and another on Hitler’s Germany. I told Marcos I had all these resources. Even though they were college level packets, I said, ‘you can just read the underlined sections and look at my notes.’”
“What really surprised me was that [Marcos] didn’t hesitate to take the books. Whenever we would check in during class, I would see that he had been reading and that he was taking his own notes on the chapters.”
“When it came to writing the paper, I had a very hands-off approach, because [Marcos] had already written down all the notes that were needed down. He created the introduction and the body paragraph, topic sentences and the conclusion.” In the beginning of the school year, Abram would focus on helping Marcos write cohesive sentences, now he’d progressed to writing articulated thoughts and is learning how to closely edit his work. “He really took full ownership of the entire project for himself. And he was one of the only few students that turned in the assignment on time.”
The positive mentorship Abram has with Marcos is spreading to other areas and students in the school as well. “I guess [Marcos] talked me up to his friends because now I have a cohort of his friends who also come to tutoring with us now.”
When you’re honest, authentic and supportive of students, they begin to open up. Abram has witnessed first-hand how important trust and respect are in building a positive learning environment for students.