VCU student Kevin Armas Rodas in conversation with a young mother holding a baby.
VCU student Kevin Armas Rodas, seen here visiting the Casa Alitas Welcome Center in Tucson, Arizona, was one of several students who completed virtual service learning hours with the refugee center this past year. (Courtesy photo)

Helping the Hispanic community in the midst of the pandemic

Students in the VCU service-learning course Hispanic Immigrants in the U.S. are continuing to make a difference.

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How do you continue to support the Hispanic community during the pandemic? For Virginia Commonwealth University students in Anita Nadal’s service-learning course Hispanic Immigrants in the U.S., it’s a question they tackled throughout 2020. 

“Many service-learning courses were canceled during the pandemic, which is understandable,” said Nadal, an assistant professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, whose students in the course are required to complete 20 hours of community service as part of their grade. “However, people still have a need, even more so right now, especially in the Latinx community. We just had to learn how to do our community service virtually.”

Advocacy for the border 

Senior Brenda Quintanilla volunteered with Casa Alitas, a program of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona Inc. that provides refugees with care, short-term shelter and help to reunite with family members in the U.S. Due to the virtual nature of the service, Quintanilla co-created an advocacy toolkit for the organization that included an overview on the migrant experience at the border, a guide for how U.S. citizens can help migrants and a newsletter template that supporters can use when contacting government representatives.

“It is important to spread the word about an organization and a topic that you feel passionate about, and this service-learning course (and service hours) allowed me to do just that,” Quintanilla said. “Personally speaking, this service-learning experience validated my career path because it allowed me to expand my knowledge of the immigration system here in the U.S., and therefore I am more interested in pursuing a career in immigration law.”

VCU student Kevin Rodas also found himself volunteering with Casa Alitas this past fall. Rodas was one of 12 VCU students who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in March 2020, right before the pandemic shut down everything. The experience profoundly affected him. “That experience, to be honest, was life changing,” said Rodas. “It was such an emotional experience for me, especially having these encounters with these families. They were so scared. The experience at the border allowed me to find something I am truly passionate about. I found my spark.” 

He was so moved by the work of Casa Alitas that he decided to remotely volunteer with them in the fall. Like Quintanilla, Rodas focused on advocacy work and organized a panel discussion with the director of Casa Alitas and the VCU community. “Unfortunately, as you get further away from the border, the conversation about the migrant humanitarian crisis becomes less and less,” Rodas said. “With the election this past fall, it was the perfect time to have this conversation. It’s important to bring awareness to this issue at the border.”

This summer, Rodas will head to the border once more for an in-person internship at Casa Alitas.

Students also masked up and performed volunteer duties on-site in Richmond. Pre-nursing student Emily Riccio volunteered with Richmond Public Schools and assisted teachers with a door-to-door flier campaign aimed at enrolling students for kindergarten. The group visited areas with large Latinx populations and Riccio served as a translator, informing parents about registration and virtual learning. Other students volunteered with Sacred Heart Center, a nonprofit organization that supports Latinx families in Richmond.   

Heroes of Color 

Students were also able to participate in a program called Heroes of Color, an initiative that Nadal developed with a grant from VCU’s Center for Community Engagement and Impact. The program pairs VCU students with Latinx students from Huguenot High School in a mentorship program. 

“When I recently heard that Huguenot High School had an overall graduation rate of 64% with a large number of Latinx student dropouts, I started doing research,” Nadal said. “I found that the best way to help students of color graduate — non-native English speakers — is to create mentorship opportunities with college students who look like them and have been through the same experiences. According to research, that is one of the greatest ways to empower these high school students.”  

Non-native speakers are often overlooked in crowded classrooms, Nadal said. “Many of these students are shy. They sit in the back of the room, they don’t speak English well, and they have to deal with everything that undocumented individuals deal with. For this population, just to continue in school is a struggle. Many of them just want to work to help their families, and so they leave school so that they can bring in funds and help pay for groceries and other basic necessities.” 

A video conference session with eleven participants.
VCU students participate (virtually) in Heroes of Color, a mentorship program that pairs VCU students with Latinx high school students in Huguenot High School.

VCU students meet with their mentees online every week for an hour, during which they discuss whatever topics — school, family issues, overcoming hurdles — the mentee would like.

VCU student Ishaan Nandwani said he first learned about Heroes of Color from a Facebook post in the Latinx VCU Facebook group. He had previously taken a service-learning class with Nadal and was intrigued by the program. 

“I decided to sign up as a mentor because I truly wanted to make a difference, and the mission of Heroes of Color resonates deeply with me,” he said. “Education has always been an important part of my life, as I was raised by immigrant parents who dreamed that my sister and I would have the opportunity to reach our aspirations in this U.S. Heroes of Color could be the catalyst that transforms an at-risk student's life forever by empowering them to continue their education, and I'm honored to be a part of it.” 

Nandwani is still getting to know his mentee, but thinks it will be a rewarding relationship for them both.

“I believe that in life we learn the most through collaboration with others; through sharing our experiences, we can catalyze each other's self-reflection and deepen our understanding of humanity. I hope that I can be a resource and support system for my mentee as they navigate through their life challenges.” 

Transformative experiences

For many of Nadal’s students, the service-learning experience is life changing and they would recommend it for all VCU students.

“I highly encourage VCU students to enroll in service-learning courses so that they can take what they learn in class and apply it to the real world by working with community organizations,” Quintanilla said.“Service learning allows students to not only work with the community, but to expand their knowledge of a certain topic, to learn more about themselves and to form long-lasting memories and relationships with the organizations.”

Rodas, who volunteered with Casa Alitas, agrees. He returned from the border trip last year determined to make a difference in the migrant community, so much so that he switched his major from biology (pre-med) to interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in international relations and race. No matter where he goes after graduation, he hopes to work in the community. 

“Service learning is so rewarding. Working and going out in the community has an effect on you and the community you are serving,” Rodas said. “With everything happening in the world, it is easy to feel powerless, but giving back gives you a sense of purpose. It can change your perspective on many things and change your path to a better path, like it did for me.”