By Sandy Chase
“Dreaming big”—a phrase coined by Hector Tejada, the current director of education initiatives—describes Cathaleen Kaiyoorawongs (Catalina) and her efforts to draft a roadmap for today’s successful Future Leaders Academy (FLA).
As a volunteer, she played a vital role in helping the nonprofit identify its mission. Catalina advocated for Latino high-school students: preparing them for postsecondary education and careers. She also underscored the importance of looking beyond immigrant rights and financial literacy to ensure the organization’s sustainability by attracting donors and partners.
Catalina had a vision for UnidosNow: empower Latino youth by strengthening FLA, which at the beginning, was a fledgling group of no more than 10 students. Moreover, she knew that she had to reach parents, reeducating them in order to overcome misconceptions and cultural barriers.
Catalina’s mantra—which UnidosNow continues to instill in its youth and families—is optimize your resources: money management and education are vital.
Recognized as a Top Latino Educator in 2016, Catalina was chosen as a fellow in the NCLR’s (National Council of La Raza) National Institute for Latino School Leaders. Through this prestigious institute, she fortified her advocacy skills—further strengthening UnidosNow’s educational program.
Because of her foresight almost eight years ago, UnidosNow is no longer Unidos THEN. NOW it’s recognized for improving the Latino community and Sarasota-Manatee at large.
What prompted you to get involved with UnidosNow?
In 2012, a mutual friend introduced me to then-Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who, like me, served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. He told me about UnidosNow, which he had founded with CJ Czaia and Luis Eduardo Baron, and introduced me to Frankie Soriano, the executive director.
Having returned from Guatemala, I was no longer interested in becoming a lawyer, and hearing about UnidosNow piqued my interest. I wanted to work with the Latino community, so I offered to volunteer.
What role did you play as a volunteer?
As a volunteer, I helped in any capacity, especially conducting workshops on financial literacy and immigrant rights. I also assisted with events, such as resource fairs—helping to promote UnidosNow in the community.
FLA was in its infancy, with only a handful of high-school kids meeting after school. UnidosNow was establishing its identity that would help ensure financial sustainability. That’s when I pitched to the board a larger vision for the FLA education program, which I believed could help the organization build a base of community support.
The data on higher-education access spoke for itself: Hispanics were graduating from high school at higher rates than the average. However, their postsecondary access and attainment were lower on average as compared with that of their white counterparts.
Using numbers and other information, I sought board support to move forward with my vision for UnidosNow and the families we ardently supported. I became the director of education initiatives, also responsible for fundraising—enlisting substantial financial support from the Gulf Coast Community and Knight foundations.
What programs did you institute as the director of education initiatives?
To boost FLA, I started a summer ‘academy” (2013-present) hosted by the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USF). Robin Groelle (education consultant) helped us design and develop the curriculum for the revised FLA.
The six-week summer workshop—now an integral part of FLA—continues to prepare rising juniors and seniors for college and careers—exploring such topics as college selection, financial-aid programs, interviewing skills, and resume writing. Participants also prepare for the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.
“Job shadowing” is another component, where attendees visit local professionals to talk about their careers. In the past, Ritz-Carlton, SRQ Media, and Kekering, Baberio & Co. (CPAs) partnered with us.
Students were also introduced to science-based careers, visiting the Mote Marine Laboratory, and learning about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) from Dr. Aparna Telang, a USF biology professor.
Before the end of my tenure, UnidosNow provided college tours, expanded the summer program by four times, and established FLA high-school clubs in Palmetto and Sarasota high schools.
Another crucial aspect was helping parents with anxieties related to college life and review what parents can do to support their children in the college-application process. We worked with parents to explain that college preparation was more than academic excellence. It was also about developing extracurricular interest outside of school.
I also worked with the Florida College Access Network to build a local college access network in Sarasota County. I worked with the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the United Way to start a coalition.
What other positions did you hold before attending the University of Michigan to pursue your M.B.A. (Ross School) and M.Ed. in Education, Leadership, and Policy?
As the associate executive director, I fervently pursued fundraising while finding the best team to bolster the FLA program, especially the summer workshops. I ran board meetings and strove to fulfill the UnidosNow mission—looking for creative ways to sustain the organization through a mission everybody would support.
How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow?
I could readily identify with our Latino kids and their families. The eldest daughter of a Thai father and American mother, I grew up in two cultures—challenged by financial stress, especially when my father’s business failed during the Asian economic crisis.
My mom raised us in Sarasota, where she worked several jobs, leaving me to care for my sisters. But these experiences taught me determination—which is why I related to the UnidosNow students.
I worked several after-school jobs, learning money management from a wealth manager for whom I babysat his kids. In fact, another employer recommended me for a position at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office after having received my degree from Barnard College.
Attending Barnard, the women’s college of Columbia University, I learned the importance of leadership, especially for women.
During my time at Barnard, I studied abroad in Ecuador and traveled all over Latin America, learning Spanish and deepening my knowledge of the socio-political culture, which I learned about and how it affects the Latinos of Sarasota-Manatee.
My experience in the Peace Corps (Guatemala) also taught me the importance of defying its cultural gender barriers—even earning me the title of “The Woman Who Wears Pants”—instilling a greater level of confidence—which helped me, as a UnidosNow volunteer, to articulate my vision.
More important, I saw first-hand the link between poverty and lack of financial education—strengthening my commitment to financial literacy and economic integration, a cornerstone of the UnidosNow mission.
What challenges did you face in your UnidosNow positions?
In the early days when UnidosNow didn’t have any apparent program structure or approach to fundraising, I was convinced that I was the person to take on this challenge. I was early in people management in my career. We operated on limited resources, and I was just inventing everything as I went along. I thrive on traveling paths less traveled.
What were the rewards during your tenure as director of education initiatives? Associate executive director?
The effect I had on the students, the trust built with them, the hope their parents had, and the fruits of seeing results of my work—rewarded me multifold. I sprang out of bed every morning and it was the greatest joy to work with students.
I love bringing together the best and the brightest and figuring out how to improve things and develop systems. For example, we moved FAFSA (federal student aid) completion for Sarasota County from 34th in the state to the top 10 in Florida.