DAVIDSON, N.C. – Magdalena Maiz-Peña’s inspiration to give back draws from an unavoidable part of her daily ritual.
“I feel myself very privileged to be a professor in Davidson College, and every time I open the door to my office, I feel that privilege,” says the chair of the school’s Spanish department.
Those morning reminders of the luxury of education have driven Maiz-Peña to ever-widening efforts to enrich the educational opportunities of youth in her community.
Maiz-Peña, a member of two organizations that provide college scholarships for Latinas and a mentor for countless student-service projects in the nearby Latino communities, says her drive to help is deep-rooted.
“Coming from Mexico and having been very privileged to receive a very solid education, I just have been always very aware that it is never enough what we give back, and that education is really a unique place of transformation,” she says.
Her efforts to ensure that others have access to that opportunity for transformation began more than a decade ago, as the sudden growth of the Latino population in Mecklenburg County began to overwhelm community resources available to aid in the transition for recent immigrants.
“Truly the opportunities in Latin America and in Mexico are so limited,” she says. “It never ceases to amaze me to see what some individuals go through to have access to education.”
And yet for this native of Mexico, some of the most heart-wrenching stories have been witnessed on this side of the border, beginning with her years as a student at Arizona State University.
Watching what happened to those who were not able to continue their education for financial reasons, she says, became a motivation that would stay with her.
So when a former student at Davidson, Rosie Molinary, began a giving circle to benefit young Latina students from middle school through college, Maiz-Peña immediately signed on.
The Circle de Luz selects under-resourced Latina girls in the seventh grade to become recipients of a scholarship of at least $5,000 on graduation from high school.
Each member of the giving circle commits to donating $90 annually for six years, money that is placed in an interest-bearing account designated for the girls upon graduation.
Then, through six years of programming – including mentoring groups, cultural events and book discussions – participants in the giving circle support the girls’ success in school.
Last year, Circle de Luz chose its first class of eight “hijas,” or daughters, from James Martin Middle School in Charlotte. This year, they hope to fund five more.
Maiz-Peña is on the selection committee for Circle de Luz, as well as that of another Charlotte-based group, the Latin American Women’s Association, which funds scholarships for Latina women who already have been accepted to colleges.
Maiz-Peña considers her interviews with applicants a privilege.
“One of the common elements that I always hear, always as if I listen to it for the first time, is that the way they want to educate themselves and strive for perfection is always in relation to others,” she says. “To give back to the community and to give back to their families. That always blows my mind.”
For Maiz-Peña it is a recurring theme – the privilege of being inspired by her students, by Rosie Molinary who founded Circle de Luz, by the girls she interviews each year and by the students in her classes at Davidson.
And building bridges between these students from different backgrounds has also become a privilege, she says.
The recipient of multiple teaching awards, Maiz-Peña has been heavily involved in the growing collaboration between Davidson students and the growing Latino population in Mecklenburg County.
What started with a few ambitious Spanish-department students who “really wanted to get to know the people, just to see a face,” eventually grew into multiple internship opportunities, service-learning classes and a full-blown student organization.
Maiz-Peña says she and the students have “done some of just about everything Latino” in their volunteering, from health and education projects, to religious sharing, to working in Latino stores and radio stations.
“I have so many faces and words and thoughts that sustain my heart,” she says. “No matter how hard the stories are there is always so much strength.”