dream big

A Mentor for All Ages: Interviewing Hector Tejeda

By Sandy Chase

“Dreaming big”—the foundation upon which UnidosNow thrives—captures Hector Tejeda.  Readily identifying with the organization’s youth, Hector continues to mentor college-bound students—providing the best opportunities for success.  He’s also been a role model for UnidosNow staff.

Echoing many community leaders, Kelly Kirschner says of UnidosNow’s director of education initiatives:  “UnidosNow has been transformed thanks to Hector’s leadership and contributions.”  

Kelly adds, “Hector fostered an environment that gave UnidosNow students an Ivy League, best-in-class experience in preparing for college.”

Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholars—many who struggle because of social and economic obstacles—have benefited from Hector’s inspiring mentoring and willingness to do whatever it takes to support them.  

  • Last year, for example, he drove a student to and from Flagler College in St. Augustine for scholarship interviews, resulting in thousands of dollars in much needed financial aid. 
  • More recently, he assisted a FLA member in preparing for a virtual interview with Harvard (his graduate alma mater).

But Hector’s mentoring hasn’t been reserved only for college-bound students, as past director of education initiatives and associate executive director, Catalina Kaiyoorawongs attests.

“I hired Hector as a part-time advisor in 2014.  Within a short time, it was evident that Hector had a gift for inspiring others—critical to the UnidosNow organization.”

Capturing how mentoring is part of Hector’s DNA, she says, “I trusted his judgment and advice—the essence of a mentor.  He inspired me to get my master’s in business administration and to dream big.  He always pushed us to dream big.—not just the students.  We are indeed the Dream Team.” 

Amanda Rico Mattox, Lucero Guzmán, Luz Corcuera, Hector Tejeda, Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, and Juan Arcila.

“Dreaming big” is reflected by the well-established, structured FLA mentoring program—supported by the staff, educational consultants, volunteers, and community foundations.  Mentor and mentee workshops and other dedicated programs enable students, parents, and mentors to think big as well.

FLA Barancik Scholars continue to earn scholarships—being accepted to such schools as Cornell, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Barnard College (Columbia University).  Closer to home, FLA alumni also attend Florida State University, University of Florida, and University of South Florida—some mentoring younger kids, especially during the pandemic.

UnidosNow has positioned itself as a role model for this and future generations—as Hector has proved that by “dreaming big,” dreams get bigger. 

What has been your relationship with UnidosNow?  

I joined UnidosNow in March 2014 as a part-time advisor.  A few months later, I was asked to take on the role of executive director, which I held until December 2015 before retiring.  Luz Corcuera, my successor, convinced me to return in May 2016 as director of education initiatives.

What prompted you to seek a position at UnidosNow? 

Having moved to Sarasota in 2013, I noted a posting for an outreach- and education-program specialist at UnidosNow.  I was excited about the prospect of working for a community organization whose core mission is to support the Latino community, especially with its focus on furthering educational opportunities for Latino youth.

After spending three years as an MBA career advisor at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and the prior 30 years working for such world-class companies as Merck, Pfizer, and Deloitte, I sought out UnidosNow because I wanted to give back to the community.  

I‘m fortunate to have had such a rewarding career, but I could not have done it without the support of so many people along the way.  Joining UnidosNow was the best way I could think of to give back.  

How has the organization flourished?

The hallmark of UnidosNow’s positioning in the community has been and will continue to be our ability to gain the trust of the Latino population and, as a result, drive grassroots efforts to improve the community.  Our founders had a vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream, starting with an emphasis on immigration reform.  

Soon thereafter, Catalina was tasked with launching a new education initiative:  FLA.  With virtually no budget, she recruited the first class of students in the summer of 2013.  Working with Robin Groelle, a local educational consultant, they put together a curriculum that set the foundation for our innovative programming today.  

To support our longer-term vision of social integration for the Latino community, the board agreed that we needed to focus on our core competence of education attainment, more specifically, college prep, and then expand gradually to broader integration initiatives and community services.  

This attention allowed us to build our credibility among key constituencies, including high schools and local colleges, community foundations, and other youth-serving nonprofits.  

With the hiring of Luz Corcuera in January 2016, UnidosNow flourished in ways that none of us had ever imagined.  Our services expanded to reach younger children and their families, but still with a focus on education and college prep.  

UnidosNow FLA Class of 2016 on a college tour.

Also, we started to reach out to broader student populations, including students planning to attend two-year and technical colleges.  And now we are looking to expand our presence in middle schools and increase our support of our students currently in college.

How has your background contributed to its success?

Originally from Guatemala, I was raised by my teenage mother, who at times had to place me and my brother in foster care.  As a first-generation, low-income student, I saw firsthand how education could change lives—as it has done mine.  In many respects, I could be the poster child for UnidosNow.

With amazing support from the community, I was able to attend Marist College, where I graduated with an accounting degree.  I then landed a position with Deloitte in NYC and received my CPA certification.  Soon thereafter, I was accepted into Harvard Business School and earned an MBA in general management.  My 30-year career was devoted to the pharmaceutical industry in marketing, finance, strategic planning, and management.

In addition to my own college and career journey, I developed a good understanding of the college recruiting and application process, as I guided my children into good-fit schools:  Princeton and Colgate universities.  

Also, after retiring from corporate America, I spent a few years as a career advisor at Wharton’s MBA program, where I built on my understanding of what it takes to gain admission to and be successful at a highly selective institution.  

The common thread throughout all these experiences—and what I hope I have brought to UnidosNow—is the importance of dreaming big and having mentors to guide you.  

What have been the challenges?  Rewards?

Challenges

  • Creating awareness of the need to support an organization like UnidosNow relative to the many options people and organizations have for giving.  It was initially challenging to create brand awareness and establish credibility.
  • Addressing substantial needs—with limited staffing and funding.
  • Convincing students with tremendous potential to dream big, something many of them have never been encouraged to do.  
  • Working within the political environment and tackling the hurdles faced by undocumented students and families.

Rewards

  • Helping students at UnidosNow is the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.  We change lives. 
  • Observing UnidosNow grow from a start-up to an organization making a significant impact on the overall community—not only Latinos.
  • Enhancing my life, UnidosNow has brought purpose to retirement.

How do you see UnidosNow evolving?

As we look to the future, UnidosNow is well positioned to expand its services in support of our longer-term vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream.  These offerings can include initiatives in healthcare, socio-economic advancement, and civic engagement.

UnidosNow Begins with “U”: Interviewing Attorney CJ Czaia

By Sandy Chase

The first letter of UnidosNow—“U”—is critical to the organization’s success.  Although the name is pronounced as “oo nee dohs,” in the English alphabet U is pronounced like the word “You.”

Ten years ago, Christopher John Czaia Centeno (CJ) Czaia—a co-founder/funder—realized that promoting the Latino community began with “You”:  

  • You,” the Latino Sarasota-Manatee residents and businesses, foundations, volunteers, and other donors.
  • You,” the “Youth.” 

CJ’s mantra has always been “oración con acción” which translates to prayer with action:  Latinos must make their voices heard—participate in their community and in the political process by voting and educating themselves, for example.  

Latino parents must also encourage their children to strive for academic and career success.  In fact, CJ is passionate about empowering Latino youth because they are the core of positive change—improving their community here in Sarasota-Manatee, and the U.S. 

It is not only parents who must instill the value of education, but the entire organization and its mentors must promote this most important catalyst for change.

Believing that leadership will excel if he keeps a low profile, CJ continues to donate his time as a board member and helps fund UnidosNow—ensuring the continued existence and direction of the organization.

Saying that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, CJ wants to leave this world feeling that he’s helped others achieve something great.

If history repeats itself, UnidosNow won’t let him down.

What prompted you to assemble the organization that founded UnidosNow?

I attended a church service where congregants were praying for immigration reform.  It was clear that people were willing to pray for change but weren’t willing to take the initiative to make the change themselves.  

I was disturbed that Latinos didn’t and—unfortunately—don’t participate in the political system—allowing others to control their lives.  The Latino community had to get involved in this great American machine—demanding they have a seat at the political table.

Jolted out of sleep, I realized that something had to be done.  Without action, prayer won’t achieve immigration reform.  If you’re a person of faith, ask G-d to give you the strength to make the change you want to see.  It’s up to you.

To make a difference, we also had to empower youth, although originally, UnidosNow was an activist group—fighting for immigration reform.  

What role did you play in the beginning?

I didn’t want to repeat mistakes of failed Latino organizations because of infighting amongst board members.  In fact, I inspired the writing of and financed the song, “Pa’lante,” encouraging Latinos to come together for the better.  For me, a small board—whose members could be the checks and balances on leadership—was ideal.

I was impressed by Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner and his staunch support of disenfranchised Latinos.  His Peace Corps experience, intelligence, and exceptional ability to articulate convinced me that I needed to recruit and pay him to be the first executive director.  I saw him as a catalyst. 

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow?

Born in Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka) to a Nicaraguan mother and an American father, who was a State Department officer, I spent many of my early years living in Africa and Latin America.  Traveling around the world, I was brought up to appreciate diverse cultures—especially Latino, with its food, history, and music.    

Closer to home, I was an advocate for immigration reform as the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) chairman of the Democratic Party of Manatee County during the Obama-Biden years.  

I dealt with such political and legal issues like fighting injustice.  I’ve also been honored to be a guest at the White House and attend the Democratic convention of Florida as an invited speaker.

I’ve always had a large Latino clientele at my law practice, and I’ve been successful in recruiting many Latinos to my firm who have flourished in their own light—rewarding me personally.

As part of the UnidosNow triumvirate, with Kelly Kirschner and Luis Eduardo Baron, what challenges did you face?

Our biggest challenge was trying to get people to understand that when one group doesn’t succeed, then the whole group fails.

From Latinos, we had to deal with apathy towards political involvement.  Perhaps, more important, most parents expected that their children would find a job after graduating from high school.  College wasn’t a goal.

We had to convince Anglos that we’re all in this together.  We had to get buy-in from Sarasota-Manatee that student success lays the foundation for the community and our nation.

My personal challenge was—and still is—keeping a low profile at UnidosNow:  I didn’t want to negatively affect the organization or drive away people who didn’t share my political ideologies.

What have been the rewards?

Rewards have been personal and professional—many are intangible—but, nonetheless, invaluable.  

Meeting students and hearing how they’ve been inspired to become something great.  Listening to their stories of how each individual has been positively affected by the organization.  It’s rewarding seeing the members/staff—unselfishly giving their time and effort—bringing the UnidosNow vision into fruition. 

Over the years, we’ve been successful in recruiting outstanding executive directors. 

As a board member and past board chairman, what are some of your goals for UnidosNow?

A crucial goal is to continue promoting UnidosNow as a community organization—ensuring its viability through donations and exceptional executive directors like Luz Corcuera.  We want to continue programs that empower our youth and their families so their voices are heard.  

Another objective is to raise money so we can continue seeking out the brightest, most dedicated, influential staff, and surround ourselves with staunch advocates like executive directors and volunteers.  We envision partnerships that will allow the organization to grow so it can aid the needs of its people and the Sarasota-Manatee community at large.

A more immediate goal is to celebrate—with the Sarasota Orchestra at the Van Wezel—our 10 years.  We want to mix the cultures of both the symphony and mariachi—brainstorming ways to create a virtual event in 2021.

How do you see UnidosNow evolving?

We didn’t foresee COVID.  But we’re resolute in coming to the aid of those less fortunate.   UnidosNow has had to step in to help those who don’t have many resources, such as those who are most vulnerable.  Our summer mentoring program and our COVID resources posted on our website are just a few examples of how we’re there for our people NOW.

“Greetings from Ohio”

College Tour at the University of Florida in 2017. Jonathan Bruzon is on the second row, second from the right.

Jonathan Bruzon was accepted into the Future Leaders Academy in 2017. In these two years, we’ve had the honor of seeing him grow into the determined and talented young man he’s become, and he’s now emailing us from Oberlin College sharing how things are going now in his new chapter:

“Hello! I am currently speaking to you from Oberlin College and Conservatory; I wanted to first start off by saying I miss you all! I want to thank you all, once again, for always being there for me, because without you all I would have never even dreamed about attending such an amazing school as this, so thank you all so much for everything that you do! I wanted to take this opportunity to update you all on how my college experience is thus far, considering that I have almost spent a full month here (which is crazy to think about!)

“Now, where to start? After arriving on the 24th (after a two day drive in a pickup truck), my family and I immediately started to unload and move all my stuff into my dorm. Here’s a before and after picture of the place:

“The weekend involved participating in the Brenda Grier-Miller (BGM) Scholars program specifically targeted towards first generation students like us. We did multiple activities like workshops on what to focus on in college, how to manage time wisely, and much more useful skills, as well as family dinners, a scavenger hunt to get to know the campus better, bowling night, and much more. Oh, did I mention that this takes place in a building that resembles Hogwarts in a way? Peters Hall is absolutely beautiful:

“Then orientation week, which is where I got my first taste as to how busy college was going to be (and it gets BUSY). There were multiple activities and events throughout the week: some of my favorites involved the faculty panel where we got to meet some of the school’s amazing professors, The OC which was a play about serious college issues with an interesting yet fun spin on how to properly deal with them, the orientation recital, and especially Connect Cleveland. On Wednesday of that week we got to visit Cleveland and see its amazing sites like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Botanical Gardens, and Wade Oval, a large field where there were popsicle stands and live jazz from Oberlin alumni!

“I also learned many new things about myself during orientation. For one, I’m actually pretty good at ultimate frisbee! I’m now on the Flying Horsecows, Oberlin’s open ultimate frisbee team (I absolutely love the name). I also learned to reconnect with nature; I visited the conservatory’s koi pond and the arboretum which were both peaceful and beautiful ( I took a nap next to the koi pond once) as well as the observatory on top of Peters Hall where you can see the night sky and stars in all their glory. I also managed to take a look at the art museum located within the college (a mini Ringling Museum!) I also participated in the Social Justice Institute for two days in which we discussed how to properly engage with social justice and activism, and I gained a lot of passion throughout the entire event. It was a very discussion-heavy program, and we discussed immigration polices, Black Lives Matter, gender binaries, inter sectionalism, the meaning of diversity, and other very pressing topics which I truly want to learn more about during my time here at Oberlin. 

“Once classes started, everything took off from there. I’m in the Double Degree Program which involves receiving degrees from both the College and the Conservatory, so I am double degreeing in Horn Performance and Latin American Studies. Needless to say it is a MASSIVE amount of time to dedicate yourself to, but I really don’t mind for the most part considering how much I love my classes! For the conservatory I am taking Music History, Aural Skills, Large Ensemble (Oberlin Orchestra), Brass Ensemble, Private Lessons and Studio Class. For the college, I am taking a course called LEAD which involves continuing to help first generation students with their college experience, as well as a Seminar on American Theater (we did a poetry slam in class today which was truly amazing and powerful and I garnered a new love for writing poetry) and a Latin American Studies Intro class. These classes are all so much fun to attend and I find myself true invested and interested in the coursework we are assigned. 

“Hope everyone is doing well down there in Florida! I’ll leave you all with one more photo of me pictured with our school mascot, the Albino Squirrel (currently unnamed, but fingers crossed for Alfonso the Albino Squirrel); until next time, I hope you are all doing well and I wish you and the FLA class of 2019-2020 all the best!”

All the best,

Jonathan Bruzon

Hispanic Heritage Celebration 2017

We look forward to seeing you this Friday, September 22nd at 6 p.m. at Michael’s On East to benefit UnidosNow scholars and their families to achieve their Dreams of Higher Education, and to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

Please be aware that Valet parking at Michael’s On East is now facing their Wine Cellar since South East Avenue is under renovations (please see map below for your reference). We will have signs guiding you, but wanted to let you know in advance.

The Hispanic Heritage Celebration will have live entertainment both before and after our gourmet dinner. Come and enjoy the music of Mariachi Los Arrieros and Trio Fusión while supporting UnidosNow scholars and families to Dream Big.

 

We have all these items in our silent auction: what are you planning to bid on?

Looking forward to seeing you!

Celebrating our Students on their Signing Day

May 25th was a very special date for our Future Leaders Academy Scholars. Families, friends, community partners, UnidosNow mentors, Board and staff gathered at Manatee Technical College to celebrate their graduation from high school and their acceptance into college. We are very proud of them and wish them success in their next adventure. It’s been a pleasure working with all, and we cannot wait to hear about all their future accomplishments.

College Tour Spring 2017

Our Future Leaders scholars and parents spent two days traveling around Florida, from college to college. On the first day, they visited Rollins College and the University of Central Florida; on the second day, they visited Eckerd College and Saint Leo University. This tour gave our students and their parents a better idea of where they would want to spend their college years.

Neil Comber shares his reflection on why he became a mentor

“As the first person in my family to graduate from college, I have long appreciated the value of a college degree. Coming from Mexico, it served me well to open doors to a successful global business career.

What is different today for students is that the application process is much more complex and competitive. When I met with Luz, I quickly signed up to be a mentor. Part of the reason was I was so impressed with the comprehensive process at UnidosNow.

In my experience, it as unmatched in its ability to help Latino students understand that college is necessary, and help them take the steps to make it a reality for them.

Once I started, I found my students to be eager and open to receiving help. For me, it was a wonderful opportunity to give advice, motivate and encourage. All of them are from immigrant families with all the attendant difficulties of living in a foreign land and having to assimilate. When I heard that each of them had been accepted to college, I felt a huge sense of pride and super excited for their futures.

I will definitely mentor again. The experience with UnidosNow has shown me that while my one-on-one coaching with my students may have only been a little ‘granito de arena’ (grain of sand) in the process, it is so important to help these young people take a very big step in their journey of success in life. Anything I can do to help in their journey is worth the time and commitment. Enhorabuena to all the students and their families who embrace this journey.”

We are grateful to Neil Comber for mentoring three students that have been successful in their college attainment. We are still in the process of recruiting new mentors. We hope you will consider mentoring a student this year. Please do contact Luz Corcuera if you feel inclined to help: luz@unidosnow.org or call (941) 840-0266.