mentors

The Right “Formula” for UnidosNow and Our Community: Interviewing Enrique Gomez-Palacio

By Sandy Chase

Deflecting the spotlight speaks volumes about Enrique Palacio—an astute financial analyst, role model, and philanthropist—who says, “I have always believed, as part of my Christian faith, that social involvement is a must.”

Enrique embodies “true charity” because over the years, he’s given his time, talents, energy, resources, and finances to Hispanic organizations—hoping to strengthen community.  For several years he’s been involved with issues connected to the growth of the Latino population in the United States.

Executive Director Luz Corcuera says, “Enrique Palacio is one of our most amazing Latino professionals, personal mentor, and trusted friend.  Dedicated to UnidosNow, he’s our ‘poster child’ because of his hard work and business savvy—embracing two cultures—earning an MBA from Columbia University (NYC) and acquiring noteworthy business experience and expertise.”

Enrique’s diverse career spans years worked in large multinationals and mid-sized companies—eventually owning an industrial metals distribution company.

Dominic Casanueva, managing director of Merrill Lynch in Sarasota—repeatedly recognized by Forbes and Barrons during his 15-year financial career—has nothing but praise.

“I’ve had the privilege of partnering with Enrique to help manage his family’s investments and finances.  In working with him, I’ve found his insights into domestic and global economics and investments to be incredibly helpful and practical.”  

Dominic continues:  “It’s been inspiring to watch Enrique blend his analytical talents with his passion to support and develop the next generation of leaders.”  

Luz Corcuera agrees, saying, “Enrique’s understanding of and ongoing advocacy for the talented first-generation, low-income, college-bound Latinos have reinforced our mission work.  He’s steadfast in inspiring our team and students to dream big.”

Other community leaders, such as Manatee Community Foundation’s Executive Director Susie Bowie—an UnidosNow advocate—have nothing but praise for this successful, altruistic businessman.

“Enrique is a leader in his approach to giving and education, working hand in hand with students, to allow them to achieve success, confidence, and security in their higher education journey.”

Susie highlights how “His focus on anticipating needs that fall outside the typical expenses covered by financial aid and scholarships enables first-generation students to stay the course in college—an investment that helps the individual and our community.” 

President and CEO of Community Foundation of Sarasota County Roxie Jerde concurs:  “During a breakfast meeting with Enrique a few years ago, I was most impressed by his commitment to Latino students—his passion and focus.”

Luz summarizes who Enrique is:  “By constantly teaching our community to elevate its philanthropic spirit, we are all strengthening Sarasota and Bradenton—and areas beyond.”

When did you learn about UnidosNow?  

Before relocating to Sarasota in 2014, I lived in North Carolina, arriving in the late 90s.  At that time, I had a difficult time finding anyone else who spoke Spanish.  When I left—roughly 20 years later—it was estimated to be home to 350,000 Latinos. 

There were a lot of tough issues that came out of such a large influx of immigrants, and I was involved in a number of them.  Through the efforts of many people, the situation in North Carolina began to change—continuing to improve to this day.   

Once I arrived in Sarasota, it was natural for me to seek out people involved with improving the lives of Latinos.  Soon I was led to UnidosNow.

Luz Corcuera and I found that we had a lot of common interests and began to have periodic cafecitos (coffee chats), exchanging findings and sharing ideas.

Why do you support this nonprofit?

Even though I am mostly retired, the analytical work I still do on the economy and in finance revealed—quite some time ago—that powerful trends towards automation, artificial intelligence, and other advances would drastically curtail opportunities for persons with a limited education. 

When one specifically looks at the existing picture on educational achievements by children of recent Latino immigrants in the United States—and particularly in Florida—the situation is bleak.  Not only is the number of students seeking college degrees quite low, but many students who manage to enter college end up leaving school—before earning a degree.

How has your relationship with UnidosNow evolved?

Luz and I were able—with difficulty—to find some limited research on why Latinos drop out of college.  We would like to sponsor more research in this area.  But in the meantime, we have zeroed in on indications in the research that financial emergencies faced by some students force them to leave college prematurely. 

Could we find a way to help those students—financially—stay in college?  

We launched a pilot project:  the Latino Fund involves a student-support program designed to provide limited emergency assistance—accessible for four years—so that a student doesn’t get swamped unexpectedly by a money problem—negatively affecting academic performance.  By providing the necessary means, this project is also geared to students who are studying out of state so they can stay connected with their families.  

We still have a lot to learn, but there are some indications that such a program can indeed assist students in critical situations and, more importantly, provide a sense that economic assistance can be available if needed.

UnidosNow works on a wide range of valuable community programs.  My plans, however, are to concentrate my support of the organization’s work to try to get students to attend college—and stay—until they complete their programs and earn a degree.  Luz and I are laser-focused on that goal.

A friend of mine recently put it this way: college education is on its way to becoming a matter of existential life or death.  It sounds extreme but I believe it to be true.

Marvict Rodriguez-Benkert: Dreaming for Herself and Others

by Sandy Chase

Marvict Rodriguez-Benkert

Marvict is determined to excel in all she does—serving as a role model for her students and mentees.  Having faced challenges head on, she’s become a stronger person.  Those who know her say that she has grit—courage to accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.

A seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, Marvict enjoys discussing stories and poems that help her students learn about themselves, others, and their world.  

“The satisfaction I feel when my students understand the importance of working on critical thinking and communication skills is invaluable.”

For Marvict, “It’s rewarding when my students tell me that they enjoyed a specific piece of literature, connected with the characters or events, or they’re able to understand a viewpoint that’s different from their own.” 

Having received her bachelor’s degree in English from University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Marvict has been teaching ELA for four years, her first two at Bradenton’s W.D. Sugg Middle School.  

Currently, Marvict teaches at the State College of Florida Collegiate School (SCFCS), a charter school providing a dual enrollment program:  a high-school diploma and an associate’s degree.  

Teaching at SCFCS gives Marvict more freedom to develop her curriculum—with more technology at hand.  As a new teacher, she devoted countless hours planning her lessons—questioning her strategies.  Over the years, she’s become more confident in her informed instructional decisions. 

However, an ongoing challenge is reaching every student.  Marvict has come to realize:  “Those who want to learn will, and those who don’t—won’t.  Ensuring that students are using technology appropriately is another challenge.”

But Marvict embraces challenges:  obstacles won’t prevent her from realizing her dreams.  During her college-application process, that determination was tested repeatedly.  

An ex-Dreamer, Marvict and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela 22 years ago.  Because of her undocumented immigrant status, Marvict couldn’t attend any of her choice schools—even though she excelled in high school and received several scholarships.  

Marvict explains, “I couldn’t apply for financial aid or claim any of my scholarships.  My single mom couldn’t afford to pay my tuition.”   

Refusing to accept the inevitable, Marvict says, “I was angry for a while.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned to value what my Dreamer experience had taught me—persevere and never give up on my dreams.”

True to herself, Marvict became a U.S. citizen in 2014.  Before then, she pursued an associate degree and worked at Starbucks, setting aside part of her salary for school and helping her mom.

Fortunately for her students and UnidosNow mentees, Marvict continues to make a difference in others’ lives.  Without a doubt, her 10-month-old daughter, Emilia, benefits from continual “learning” opportunities.  Laughing, Marvict says, “Soon she and I will be dancing together, one of my favorite pastimes.”

Kelly Monod, senior head of school at SCFCS, applauds Marvict’s determination to excel, reach new levels of expertise in her field, and inspire her students to achieve the highest standards of which they’re capable:  

“Marvict has grit—shown by her professional goals and in the classroom. Never giving up on her students, she always meets them at their academic level.  She asks them to grow in their learning, while celebrating their successes.”

A colleague attests to Marvict’s refusal to be defeated.

“Marvict can best be described as fearless—especially when facing challenges.  Looking at what needs to be done, she’s one of the first people to present viable ideas.  Not shying from the unknown, Marvict has an ability to connect with students.  She always goes the extra mile for them.”

UnidosNow Executive Director Luz Corcuera also praises Marvict:

“Marvict brings passion, knowledge, and dedication to UnidosNow—whether as a volunteer at our Noche Latina celebration or for our mentoring program.  We are forever grateful for her time and talent over these last four years.”

One of Marvict’s ex-mentees Daisy Mendoza, a psychology major at Florida Gulf Coast University says, “She was a big help when I needed to have my college essay revised.  Always available, she made sure I filled out my applications correctly.”  

Marvict replies:  “My mentees and students inspire me to continue learning and become a better person so I can help others.  Staying involved in my community has helped me focus on my next dream—that of attending graduate school.”

Law fascinates Marvict. “I want to use my critical thinking skills to change a person’s life in a positive way.  Immigration law interests me because I’d be able to help, guide, and represent others in an emotionally taxing process.”  

Marvict wants to apply her writing skills and life experience to draft laws that would improve people’s lives in a diverse society.  She’s also interested in exploring leadership roles in the public-service sector.

Wherever Marvict’s journey takes her, she won’t stop striving until she’s realized all her dreams and helped others to achieve theirs as well.

The Good News Keeps Coming: More Scholars Receive their College Acceptances

The closer we get to graduation, the more college acceptances our scholars are receiving. We continue feeling enormously proud of them, and we know they wouldn’t have come this far without the passionate support of all their mentors. Congratulations, FLA graduates, and thank you, mentors!









With Gratitude

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The UnidosNow team would like to extend our sincere thanks to – and deep appreciation of – all of our generous, committed volunteers, funders, supporters and partners who make it possible for us to empower our young people to Dream Big and Reach High! Learn more about this day here: #GlobalApplause.

#Madewithlove Visit

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Pictured here are the #Madewithlove ladies and UnidosNow supporter Herb Moller.

We were surprised and delighted to receive some wonderful, unexpected community support from Megan, Amanda, and Sonia, who generously baked and delivered homemade cookies to the UnidosNow team in November! They just wanted us to know that we are thought of and cared for. Many thanks to this thoughtful trio for making our day brighter through their #madewithlove campaign!

Herb Moller, a long time supporter and mentor of UnidosNow, was in the office and gladly accepted the gift from these talented ladies.

Volunteers of the Month, Kathy and Tom Cook

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UnidosNow is incredibly fortunate to have this dynamic couple sharing their many talents, time and resources with us! Kathy is a retired educator and Tom is a retired software engineer who worked for NASA. They decided to get involved with UnidosNow four years ago because they believe in education, giving back to the community, and sharing their talents, especially with young people. During the last several years, Kathy and Tom have generously provided myriad types of support, as needed, from event logistics to student mentoring.

Tom currently has three mentees, all of whom are either sophomores or juniors, and are interested in the engineering field. Jonathan Barroso, Nicholas Gonzalez, and Daniel Paredes have noted that their mentor, Tom, affirms in them their desire to pursue engineering. With a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, Tom is a role model and his mentees aspire to have as rewarding a career as he has.

Given her breadth of expertise as an educator, Kathy, who has worked with vulnerable children, understands that every student has potential and that teachers are tremendously influential in their lives. She has witnessed how encouragement from a caring teacher can help a young person pursue their dreams.

Kathy and Tom believe in and embrace UnidosNow’s college prep initiatives. We are so deeply grateful for their ongoing support of our students. And for their heartfelt belief in Dreaming Big, so that young people can explore their potential and be empowered with the tools they need to succeed in life!

Volunteer of the Month, Joe Carfora

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Congratulate our volunteer of the month, Joe Carfora! Joe has a passion for mentoring students of all ages and providing them with the guidance needed to be successful in life. Prior to coming to Florida a couple of years ago, Joe helped elementary and middle school students with math and reading needs and provided general advice to them regarding the sports they played and how to set goals. But his real passion was to work with high school students, and we are fortunate at UnidosNow that he found us before another organization could grab him.

Last year Joe volunteered to mentor one of our students and also assisted us by reviewing several student essays before they were submitted with college applications. This summer Joe has agreed to mentor three students and, as usual, is putting his whole heart into it. He has an amazing way of connecting with teenagers and understands how challenging it can be to interact with students at this age. Joe doesn’t use a cookie cutter approach to mentoring. He takes the time to understand each student’s personal story and aspirations, and then seeks to guide them on their unique path to success.

Joe goes the extra mile with his students, whether it’s conducting his own research to familiarize himself with colleges that might offer a student’s major, or meeting with a student’s guidance counselor since the student’s parents were unable to speak English, or taking the time to meet and encourage parents who so badly want their children to get ahead.

We pride ourselves at UnidosNow for seeking out students with grit, students with the perseverance needed to overcome the many obstacles they face in high school, and will continue to face in college and beyond. Joe understands that mentors have to be equally gritty because mentoring is not easy. He also understands that getting into college and eventually graduating takes more than strong academics –it takes life skills that are not normally taught in our schools. And here is where Joe excels, as he has lived a full and successful life, and has so much wisdom to share. Joe arrived in our region to retire after spending over 4o successful years in the plastics industry. But anyone who knows Joe understands that retirement is not part of his make-up. He is still an active board member in his chosen industry, and has played a leadership role in his community, Lakewood Ranch. Also, he is a proud alum of Rutgers University and often represents the school at college fairs.

Joe is a dedicated husband and a proud father and grandfather. We are so grateful to have him as a member of our team, and are equally grateful to his wife Sharon for supporting Joe as he pursues his passion for giving back to the community.