“Take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to you because you never know where that opportunity is going to take you.” ~ Maribel Sanchez
As program advisor for the Educational Talent Search Program (ETS) — for grade schools in the Windham region of Connecticut — Maribel Sanchez wears a variety of hats. She is a confidante, an academic advisor, an opportunity seeker. She is there when a student breaks-up with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend and lends a shoulder to cry on, whatever it may be. She ensures her students are taking the appropriate classes and that they are striving, thriving and reaching for success. Her goal: guide students through a variety of academic and social obstacles from grades 9-12 and on into college.
Sanchez knows from her own experience how important her job is.
“I didn’t want to go to college,” Sanchez admits. “I didn’t see the importance of it. I didn’t have anyone like me telling me this is what you should do. I had my best friend and she was such a shining example; she was so smart and educated and said, ‘You can go to college.’ She is the one who ultimately pushed me to apply to colleges and things like that and then here I am! helping kids.”
ETS, a project of the University of Connecticut is a federally funded TRIO program that provides free college, career, and financial aid information to over 600 middle school and high school students each year. Sanchez helps identify and selects students and functions as a catalyst for success, while working with more than 225 high school, secondary and middle school students any given year.
“Our major priority is to make sure that our students successfully complete the grade that they are in and go on into the next grade and so on and so forth on until college,” says Sanchez. “I want my folks to be successful and I want to be a shining example to the Latino population that we can all go further; we can all get a degree.”
The ETS program offers a variety of activities to build not only a student’s academic portfolio, but character.
“We want them to know the importance of being involved in the community and school and how that makes you feel and what that looks like,” says Sanchez. “We also want them to have study skills, those cliche things — time management. We want them to be educated in the sense of knowing what’s happening in their school and what’s available to them. We want them to be well rounded and involved.”
Sanchez achieves this by exposing students to a wide range of experiences. While college awareness is heavy on ETS’s agenda, other events include Zumba classes, tie-dying, and field trips to places like Brown Stone Park.
Seventy-five percent of the students that Sanchez services are “some form of Latino.” Sanchez attributes this to her servicing area, which encompasses Willimantic — an area with a high population of Latino.
“We totally take into consideration what the population is here,” says Sanchez. “The cultural backgrounds are an important thing that we make sure to celebrate.”
When taking the students to visit colleges — like the University of Connecticut (UCONN), home base for Sanchez — the cultural center is always a set destination.
“We want to let them know that there is a population here that looks like them, so they don’t feel intimidated.”
Sanchez says that her fluency in Spanish is also a source of comfort to both students and their parents. However, she admits that this is not typically found throughout the educational system and believes that language barriers definitely play a part in inhibiting the success of many Latino students.
“They have this immersion program where it doesn’t matter if you speak English, you’re going to go right into an English speaking class. And sometimes it feels like we are setting them up; we’re setting them up for failure.”
“It’s hard,” she continues, “especially with the lack of bilingual education. A lot of the parents and guardians are not aware of what they need to do. They are not appropriately educated. They don’t know what they need to do for their kids — for their kids to take an AP class. They don’t even know what an AP class is. And that’s what programs like mine do, is try to educate not only the student but also the parent. The parent engagement is one of the most important things; if you don’t have the parent on board you’re not going no where.”
To remedy this, ETS provides financial aid workshops for both students and parents, they have parent orientations, and send out mailings of the “on-goings” throughout the year in both English and Spanish.
Sanchez says, “We want them to feel like we are keeping them in the loop.”
A series of events has led Sanchez to where she is today. She says, “I didn’t know I would be doing this. I started out thinking I would become a teacher.”
She says the job of program advisor for ETS just “fell in her lap” — a position she has held for nearly 10 years, and one she sees herself being in for many years to come.
Because of her own personal journey, Sanchez now tells her students: “Take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to you because you never know where that opportunity is going to take you.”