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On Raising the Levels of Excellence

By Christina Elizabeth Rodríguez

The more you expect from a student, the more you will get. I was in college when I realized this and what was going on in our educational system. I remember telling people—my colleagues, my friends—that in order for children and inner-city youth to rise up, we have to raise the standards and levels of excellence. With that piece of information I’ve grown to become a very strong advocate of tough love.

The foundation for this idea started off early, when I realized that judgment by others plays a big role on youth development. I was blessed with a strong family that let me know I was supported and will always be supported regardless of what crazy ideas I decided to follow. However, in public spaces I wondered why I felt like I always had to prove myself.

It wasn’t until college, when I realized how different many people tried to label us. “Us” can represent a lot of things. Latinos, women, Mexicans, young people—I fell into a series of categories and I still do. It was at the University of Illinois where I was pointed out for my differences. This was the same place where we were called “spics,” where other students couldn’t understand how I spoke Spanish without being born in Mexico, and where I was looked at as the end-all, be-all of Latino insights. I wasn’t scared or discouraged since I knew I earned the right to be there, but I was saddened by the fact that no one saw us for anything besides our last names, color and where we lived in Chicago—not the outlying suburbs from which many students hailed.

That’s when I realized that I was there to push myself and to overcome the obstacles set before me, both in the classroom and outside it. I was never treated like this in high school, where Latinos were still a minority. I was treated like an equal and seen for my efforts and hard work. Luckily, because of my parents, I didn’t grow up with an inferiority complex or a feeling that I was too Mexican or didn’t belong. In fact, our family was quite the opposite and I learned to feel empowered in my differences.

 Christina Elizabeth Rodríguez putting in some study time at University of Illinois, 2006.

Christina Elizabeth Rodríguez putting in some study time at University of Illinois, 2006.

When tutoring, mentoring or talking to young people, especially Latinos, I question them, make them push themselves forward and think harder. I’m going to tell them that they deserve the best and they are the only ones who can reach their goals, achieve their dreams. Students will learn as much as they can in school from what their teachers are telling them, but if they’re not feeling empowered in their surroundings, a lot of things are left unsaid, undone, leading them to slip through the cracks.

I once told a student to sit up in his seat and be proud of his ideas, thoughts and words. If adults, teachers, parents don’t believe in their children, who happen to be defined as “inner city” “at-risk” students, they’re going to stay in that category. But they don’t have to.

At ElevArte, we talk about supporting our students in their goals and motivations. Whether they want to be a scientist, social worker, next great American novelist or the next Vincent Van Gogh, we believe that they can. Every student has the possibility and capability to become something greater, and reach their goals.

In addition to believing in youth, ElevArte challenges them to go above and beyond. If there is no challenge, there is no growth. Whether it’s dabbling in a new type of artwork, getting out of their comfort zone or expanding on the potential of their future careers, we aim to challenge and raise the standards. Knowing we can help develop these students and impact them at a young age is why we call them at-promise, knowing that they will grow into promising and successful individuals with the right support. We are there to guide that growth in the right directions.

To find an organization like ElevArte, that highlights this aspect in their students and the families that they serve was a dream and serving on the Board of Directors was my goal. I am an advocate for the at-promise youth in our communities and I am glad to be a part of helping further ElevArte’s mission.

Christina Elizabeth Rodríguez is a Mexican-American writer by trade and is a Senior Account Executive at Zocalo Group and a co-founder of EXPO Collective, an art collective building community through exhibitions and providing art for the greater good. Rodríguez graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, College of Media with a Master’s Degree in Journalism. In addition to her work, Rodríguez is a diabetes advocate and writes about diabetes on her blog, Diabetes Types A Blog.