Carla Mena and her family came to the U.S. from Peru in part so she and her brother could receive a quality education, a goal that almost was taken from the Meredith College junior when she was unable to afford last year’s tuition increase.
But a grant to Meredith from the Tomorrow Fund for Hispanic Students helped Mena make up the difference and she now is on track to graduate next year with a degree in biology, and a passion to pass along that helping hand.
Mena’s family left Peru in 2001, in part to provide a better education for Mena and her younger brother, both of whom had attended private school in Peru until their parents lost their jobs and no longer could afford tuition and books.
After receiving a visa, they moved to the U.S. when Mena was 11, living for six months in Greensboro before settling in Raleigh.
After graduating from Sanderson High School, Mena received partial scholarships to help her attend Meredith College in Raleigh.
But coming into her junior year, Meredith raised its tuition by $2,000, more than Mena and her family could afford.
“I received $2,000 from the fund and it was enough to cover the increase of tuition,” she says. “Without that, I would not have been able to continue my education.”
Not only does the Tomorrow Fund awards grants to North Carolina colleges and universities to smooth the path to college for Hispanic students, it also arranges mentoring relationships between the fund’s board members and beneficiaries.
Mena is paired with a local business executive that she meets with regularly to talk about school, careers and life in general.
“She’s there to support me,” says Mena. “I like that the Tomorrow Fund isn’t just giving money but is offering a support system for all of us.”
It’s that aspect of the fund that has inspired Mena to make real her dream of providing college-age mentors to Hispanic and Latino high-school students.
She currently has a proposal in to Sanderson High School in Raleigh to pilot a mentoring program.
“The idea was in the back of my head,” Mena says of the new mentoring program. “But I didn’t know how many people would be interested in helping out. I feel like the board members would be more than delighted to help me out.”
Her experiences also have led her to become an outspoken advocate for issues affecting Hispanics and Latinos, including the ongoing debate about whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend college.
Without higher education as an incentive, and with myriad responsibilities on their plates, including providing child care for siblings while parents work, and translating for their families, many teens lack the incentive to work hard in school, Mena says.
“Our responsibility as people who have gone through it and succeeded in graduating and going to college is to go back and say ‘you can do it and this is why,'” she says.
And some children of immigrants forget the sacrifices their parents made to bring them to this country, she says.
“Some of us were too young to remember what happened,” says Mena. “To have someone there to remind you what the goal was for you to be here is very necessary.”
Mena’s ultimate career goal is to attend medical school and work for Doctors Without Borders, an international nonprofit that provides medical care for people living in countries plagued by war or natural disasters.
But first, to provide time to continue her advocacy and lobbying efforts, Mena aims to attend graduate school in some aspect of medical research.
“I don’t see my life being complete,” she says, “without being able to actively participate in what I believe in.”