Amelia Castañeda is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.
The oldest of four, I was a first-generation college graduate from Virginia Tech. In the fall of 2013, my youngest brother Saul was about to embark on his first semester of college after graduating a year early from high school. He shared with me that I had inspired him to pursue a college education. I was touched, especially since I had helped him along the way with his applications.
Flash forward a year later. Hanging out in Saul’s room back home with my brother Greg, I had the chance to revisit our conversation and I asked specifically, “How did I inspire you?” Greg chimed in and said simply, “You raised the standard.”
Ever since joining the Higher Achievement team three and a half years ago, I have been able to articulate more clearly what has propelled me to give back to my community. I believe strongly in the three principles that guide Higher Achievement: talent is everywhere, intellect is built through effort, and opportunities matter.
Growing up, nobody expected me to attend college right after high school. Not because my parents didn’t believe in me or because there was a lack of caring, but simply because they didn’t know how I could make that leap. Some of my peers were expected to go to college, but what becomes an expectation for some can be a foreign language to many. During my senior year in high school, I found myself continually feeling left behind. While everyone was speaking this magical language that included college applications and SAT’s, I felt completely lost.
At Higher Achievement, my mission is to bridge that communication gap for families and students and to introduce the expectation of college attendance in the middle school years. We infuse our scholars with opportunities to not only discover their interests but also to prepare them for the rigor of high school and beyond. For example, we take our 7th and 8th graders on an overnight college visit, which for most of them is their first experience setting foot on a college campus.
I first joined Higher Achievement in the spring of 2011 as we launched our Richmond affiliate. Prior to joining Higher Achievement, I worked at a school with students with autism in a one-on-one setting. There, I was already touching on two major Higher Achievement principles—setting high standards and expectations, as well as providing opportunities for our students to excel.
Last year, Higher Achievement introduced a new, bold vision: That, by 2030, all students in Higher Achievement cities (Richmond, Alexandria, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.) will graduate high school prepared for college. As an organization, we have challenged ourselves to make college an expectation across the board. Accomplishing this goal will require a coordinated effort from staff, school districts, and community partners. As our communities band together to realize our bold goal of universal college-readiness by 2030, I am proud of the work we are all doing to raise the standards and make high expectations the new norm for all. One by one, we all have the power to be champions in our own communities and create a domino effect that inspires others to succeed and dream big.
Amelia Castañeda is the Alexandria Center Director for Higher Achievement, an organization dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for middle school youth.