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Wheels of Leadership, Developing the Next Generation of Latina Leaders

Juana Matías graduated from the University of Massachusetts with double majors in Political Science and Criminal Justice and a minor in International Relations.

Juana Matias, from Massachusetts, has come a long way from her days as a non-English speaking newcomer from the Dominican Republic striving to survive in a foreign country.

This past May, Juana-- a National Hispana Leadership Institute’s 2008 Latina Learning to Lead (LLL) graduate-- achieved a significant educational milestone and a first step towards her professional future. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts with double majors in Political Science and Criminal Justice and a minor in International Relations.

When Juana migrated to the United States at the tender age of 5, she quickly learned that feeling inadequate because of the way she looked and sounded was going to be an obstacle she needed to overcome.

“At times I would be in a ‘normal’ class but I would get pulled. I didn’t feel as good as the other kids,” said Juana.

But feeling out of place energized Juana to study hard and learn English quickly “to catch up with the other kids.”

Latinos, like Juana, are the country’s largest racial/ethnic minority and the fastest growing segment of the young workforce. College completion is a challenge for Latinos, and Latinas are a particularly vulnerable group. While Latino youth may go on to postsecondary education at rates somewhat comparable to Whites, there is a large gap in college completion rates: 36% of White high school graduates finish their bachelor’s degree compared to 18% of Hispanics in general and 15% of Latinas.

Latinas face many of the challenges of their male counterparts – financial hardship, lack of role models to encourage and motivate them, and lack of experience with the application process and supports to help them navigate the college experience – but they also face additional challenges in greater proportion, such as early pregnancy and the likelihood to have to support dependants. Young Latinas leave college and join the ranks of the underemployed at disturbing rates. The country misses out on talent that could contribute to innovations to keep America competitive.

Leadership opportunities for this important sector of the population are essential.

Fortunately, major corporations like Nissan North America, Inc who are at the forefront of issues concerning Hispanics in the United States, recognize the need for developing the next generation of leaders who will make a difference in their communities.

In 2008, Nissan provided scholarships for young Latinas, including Juana, to participate in the LLL program and attend a NHLI’s annual Executive Leadership Training Conference for an additional training. They include Erika Achondo (El Paso, TX), Nolvia Delgado (Manhattan, NY), Karen Flores (Bisbee, AZ), Andrea Giraudo (Watkisville, GA), Alexis Ruiz (Athens, GA), Radiris Diaz (Mt. Vernon, New York), Claudia Estrada (Indianapolis, IN), Paola Urrea (Weston, Florida) and Karolina Villargrana (Thornton, Colorado).

With NHLI, the nation’s premier leadership program for Latinas, as the cornerstone and the support of community and leadership oriented sponsors, NHLI has trained 176 Latinas from more than 150 colleges and universities from across the country since 2001.

“Education is at the core of leadership advancement and the nation’s economic and socialwell-being. Community and sponsor’s support is critical to leadership organizations like NHLI that seek to train ethical leaders,” said Cristina López, NHLI’s President. “It’s encouraging to see major corporations like Nissan invest in the Hispanic community.”

Each year begins anxiously for a couple of hundred Latina college students as they apply to LLL and concludes as a life-changing experience that helps to shape personal and professional goals, define a life vision, and reinforces community activism for 22 young women.

The leadership impact does end not at graduation. Latinas Learning to Lead participants have mentored more than 400 young Latinas. More than half (53%) graduates indicate mentoring three or more people. NHLI LLL graduates’ commitment to “paying it forward”, goes beyond their mentorship. Graduates volunteer at a community project upon graduation. Approximately 70% of NHLI graduates volunteer at least monthly, significantly higher than the average volunteerism rate for Americans (27%).

Juana was essential in helping young Charoline Abreu, 19 years old from MA, get into college. She took Charoline on school tours, provided ongoing guidance and connected her to other resources. Juana also mentors two other Latinas who are in high school. Juana has also been essential in the rebuilding efforts post hurricane Katrina; serving as a volunteer for two consecutive years.

“Through the Nissan supported program, I have been able to define my career goals and understanding of leadership. As a leader, I want to open doors for those behind me,” said Juana. “This experience has taught me how to look at the world,” she added.

Juana’s story is not unusual. She represents the thousands of tales about young people overcoming significant barriers to succeed, especially as immigrants. According to Juana her accomplishments to date would have not been possible without the encouragement of her family and the support of entities that value and support leadership development.

This young leader hopes to soon move to the nation’s capital where she is looking to pursue internship and jobs prospects. In the meantime, Juana is studying for the LSAT exam and planning to apply to the top 10 law schools in the United States and begin law school in 2011.

Ten years from now, Juana envisions herself with a doctorate degree in international law working in the political arena in a capacity that will enable her to create change and make decisions that will impact communities across the globe.

“My LLL experience reinforced my desire to go into politics,” said Juana.

Through the support of Nissan scholarship and other sponsors, bright students like Juana learn how to become the leaders of today and tomorrow.

Nissan has been providing scholarship and leadership opportunities to Latinas through NHLI’s leadership programs and conferences since 2007.

In mid June, another twenty two other Latinas from diverse background and communities will begin their leadership journey while hundreds more will start preparing to apply for the 2010 program.

For more information about NHLI’s Latina Learning to Lead program contact Evelyn Garcia-Morales at 703-527-6007. To learn more about application process, visit