CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Inspired by the Latina teens she is helping prepare for college, Jocelyn Negron-Rios, a wife, mother and full-time worker, has almost completed her freshman year at Strayer University.
Negron-Rios, who is Puerto Rican, was raised in a single-parent household in the Harlem community of New York City, and while she was surrounded by strong and positive female role models, none had gone to college.
“I knew it was an option,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to go about it. It was more important to me to get out into the working world and not be a burden to my mom.”
She had intended to go to college at some point, but life kept getting in the way — a job loss in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; marriage; and the birth of her son.
In 2004 she and her family relocated to Charlotte for work and to be closer to her husband’s family, a move that resulted in severe culture shock.
“Growing up in New York City, it wasn’t an effort to hold on to my cultural identity because you’re hit in the face with it everywhere you go,” Negron-Rios says of the city’s music, food and densely populated Latino neighborhoods.
But it was different in Charlotte, where communities are more spread out and she has to drive 20 miles to find a grocery that carries the products she uses for cooking.
“I cried for the first year-and-a-half,” says Negron-Rios, who now works as an executive assistant at GMAC Financial Services. “I felt like no one really understood me here because there’s not as much of a Hispanic population.”
That began to change in 2007 when she connected with Rosie Molinary, a Latina educator and author who was planning to launch a giving circle that would provide intensive mentoring to middle-school Latinas, along with the promise of funding to help with post-high-school education.
Negron-Rios joined the effort and became a founding board member in 2008.
Molinary “allowed me the opportunity to do something that’s bigger than myself and give back to the Latino community,” she says. “When she first presented the idea, it made me think of my grandmother because women in the Hispanic community just make things happen.”
Now, the women of the Circle de Luz giving circle are making things happen for middle-school girls in their own community.
Circle members, called Mi’jas, which means girlfriends in Spanish, each pledge to contribute at least $90 a year for six years to a scholarship pool, from which each girl who successfully completes high school will receive at least $5,000 for educational expenses.
Currently there are 105 Mi’jas, hailing from 10 states across the U.S., including North Carolina, Florida, California and New York.
Girls are selected at age 13 as seventh graders and are followed closely throughout middle and high school, with programming is provided by the Mi’jas twice a month all six years.
During its first year, the circle selected seven girls from James Martin Middle School to participate, and last year brought on another six from Ranson Middle School.
The number of girls chosen each year depends on the number of new circle members who can be recruited sponsor the girls.
Once a month, Circle de Luz members arrange for an in-school event with the girls, bringing in speakers to discuss topics like entrepreneurship, obtaining student loans, goal-setting, journaling or making your way though the U.S. as a Latina.
The monthly out-of-school sessions are designed to broaden the girls’ horizons and show them what their futures have to offer.
They’ve completed a low-ropes challenge course at Davidson College, had dinner at a Japanese steak house, and this year will see the Broadway musical Wicked.
“A lot of their experiences have been limited,” says Negron-Rios. “These things open up a whole new world of possibilities. Their perspectives and experiences have gotten bigger, and in turn, their dreams get bigger.”
And in the process, the girls move from talking in possibilities to talking about what they want and what they need to do to get there, she says.
In many ways, Negron-Rios says, she has received as much from the experience as she has given.
The process helped move her college dreams to the forefront, giving her the courage to dive into the four-plus-year journey of earning a degree in international business.
“After I got involved in Circle de Luz, I realized, here I am talking the talk and not walking the walk,” she recalls. “Education is an investment in yourself and it can never be taken away.”
The girls also give her a sense of purpose and of accountability, knowing they look up to her as a role model.
And networking with other Mi’jas has helped her find and connect to the Latina community in her new home town, reaffirming her pride in her Puerto-Rican roots.
“I want to pass on to the next generation to be proud of who you are and where you come from,” says Negron-Rios. “Be proud of your culture. Know who you represent – yourself, your family and your culture – and represent it well.”