August 2023

Identifying a need in the community and coming up with a response — that’s the powerful opportunity that nine private college students had the chance to pursue this summer. Through the Phillips Scholars program, the students created and tested ideas, developed and launched their own summer programming to address community needs.

Emilia Garrido Vásquez
Emilia Garrido Vásquez (photo by Lori Gleason)

Take Emilia Garrido Vásquez, a recent graduate of St. Catherine University, who wanted to share her knowledge and love of ballet with young kids in St. Paul. Growing up, being a ballet dancer was important to her identity, but she recognizes the expense of ballet – dance clothes, expensive shoes and dance lessons — represents a barrier to many children.

In addition, French is the language of ballet and Garrido Vasquez was used to these position names being used in Ecuador where she grew up. But when she came to the United States, the instructions by ballet teachers were in English and she did not know English well. However, participating in a bilingual ballet class where she served as a translator several years ago was a powerful experience and helped her develop her program: A free introductory bilingual dance class for children, using the principles of ballet to serve as an easy-to-follow structured class model.

“Serving as a translator made me feel useful. I could provide skills and tools to a demographic that couldn’t access dance education,” Garrido Vásquez said. “I wanted to help kids learn about ballet, which is a fun, vigorous and structured art form with benefits that can last a lifetime.”

Garrido Vásquez’s program was for kids ages seven to nine who learned ballet for 45 minutes, and a mini workshop after each class introduced other dance disciplines. A dance clothes donation from St. Paul ballet studio Grand Jeté helped the kids look, and hopefully feel, like dancers as they moved in comfortable clothes. She also provided transportation resources if needed to further improve accessibility.

“This is a good place to start thinking about how to make dance education more accessible and affordable for kids. My job this fall will be working with kids at St. Paul Ballet, and I’ll bring this knowledge and I hope to reach more kids,” added Garrido Vásquez, who had a double major in Theatre and Dance, and Psychology. “I’d love to be a dance movement therapist someday, and I never imagined I could do this.”

The Phillips Scholars Program supports students with a $9,000 scholarship for during the school year and a stipend to undertake their community-based project. Students meet with other Phillips Scholars during the academic year to develop their leadership skills, share ideas and support each other as they prepare for their summer projects. In its 29thyear, the program is supported by the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota.

Liliana Valverde Ortiz
Liliana Valverde Ortiz

Another Phillips Scholar this summer has been Liliana Valverde Ortiz. The recent University of St. Thomas graduate designed her project to educate, inform and provide resources to those in the Burnsville ESL community, including first-generation students, Spanish-speaking students and students whose parents struggle with English.

Valverde Ortiz realized that while many resources are aimed at high school students, these efforts are often too late for families where college isn’t the norm. She wanted to focus on middle school students and show them how to be successful in college and present other educational options that can lead to good paying long-term careers.

“To recruit students, I went to middle schools, talked to teachers, handed out fliers and networked through teachers,” Valverde Ortiz said. “When meeting with students, I start where they are and where they see themselves ending up workwise, then I help them set goals and offer resources to meet their goals.”

Valverde Ortiz is learning that for most of these students, their parents don’t have degrees and English is their second language, so they don’t know how best to help their kids. She’s creating literature aimed at helping students write a resume and apply to college that can be handed down to the students following them. She’s also encouraging these students to expand the circle and help others who need the same kinds of help in the future, possibly creating a self-sustaining network.

“I want to help kids see other options besides college. I’m learning just how different people see schooling and what comes after,” Valverde Ortiz said. “There are lots of options, including trade schools and many offer free classes, and certification training to become a realtor or translator.”

Alexander Vue
Alexander Vue

Meanwhile Alex Vue, a senior this fall at the University of St. Thomas, has been busy working to connect Hmong youth and Hmong professionals to help kids explore and learn about different careers. “I chose people the kids can relate to, so if they think life is hard, they can get through it as a Hmong person,” Vue said.

Dubbed Tus Choj, which means “The Bridge,” his project hosted eight to 10 students each day for four days and began with a workshop presentation of careers by Hmong professionals, followed by a one-on-one experience with a mentor to bounce ideas off each other. These professionals are a resource of information and advice for the students. Finally, several college students and professionals volunteered to host students for college or workplace visits.

The biggest challenge Vue faced was finding students. He talked to career counselors at St. Paul Harding and Como High Schools, as well as at Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park, who helped him get the word out and recruit student participants. In contrast, he easily found 27 mentors from around the United States who were eager to participate and give back to the Hmong community. The out-of-state professionals participated via Zoom, but one offered to fly to Minnesota for the event.

The message he wanted to convey was the path might be unclear but keep going and you can make it. One student gave Vue this feedback, “seeing actual individuals who look like me that have gone through hardships and make it through, brings out a different side of you. If they can do it, why can’t we?” Other students thought this was an amazing idea and wished the event was longer. When surveyed after the event and asked if they were confident or not on a scale of one to five, most indicated fours and fives.

“I’m glad I had that impact on someone,” Vue said. “As a person of color, I would have felt more confident had I seen professionals who looked like me and went to college.”

By Tom Brandes