This summer, Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) will help reprise and expand the youth program Beyond Rising, which it runs with Oyate Group, a community partner. The program offers paid internships to undocumented immigrant high school students who live in the community around the university.

The program is designed to fill in a gap left by New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which provides paid work experience to New Yorkers aged 14 to 24. Beyond Rising focuses on youth who may not feel comfortable filling out SYEP’s rigorous paperwork, said Julie Gafney, Executive Director of the CCEL, and offers them positions in offices across the Fordham Rose Hill campus. 

A Population That’s Left Out

The SYEP program helps thousands of youth with work experience, but it doesn’t work for all the city’s youth, said Tomas Ramos, founder of the Oyate Group—a nonprofit that aims to lift up underserved communities across New York City. 

“There’s a population that is being left out—and that’s the undocumented population,” he said.

It’s a need that’s grown over the last few years as record numbers of immigrants enter the country, Gafney said. Recently, the New York Times published an extensive investigation into widespread, systemic exploitation of unaccompanied minors who cross the border looking for work or a new life. The investigation found that across the U.S., minors work long hours in factories, construction, and meat plants, and often end up injured or dropping out of school.

“This is one of the most pressing issues facing our nation, migration justice, and especially making sure that there are really, really good pathways that avoid any form of exploitation,” Gafney said.

Paid Internships—with Fordham Students as Mentors

This year, Beyond Rising will offer 30 paid internships to high school students, between the ages of 16 and 18, who live in the Bronx, Harlem, or Washington Heights; over the six-week program, students will be paid a weekly stipend of $500, delivered as a prepaid debit card. 

For the program, bilingual Fordham students act as mentors to support interns, assist in English language learning, engage them in campus and cultural activities, and foster a sense of belonging on a college campus.

During last year’s pilot Beyond Rising program, roughly 20 interns all from the Dominican Republic, worked in jobs across campus, including in athletics, the Dean’s office, and the CCEL. Typically, their families came to the U.S. looking for better economic opportunities. With Beyond Rising, interns could both contribute to family living expenses and learn what it feels like to be on a college campus. Since interning, several of them have been accepted into NYC colleges. 

Putting College Within Reach

For many high school students, especially immigrants, attending college is hard to imagine. Beyond Rising aims to demystify the experience, show students about college life and the fun and connections they can make outside of classes, and offer students some tools to pursue college themselves, if they wish. 

“It’s setting their gears… on each of those kids, saying that there’s more to pursuing higher education, it’s more than just an education, you’re learning constantly outside from the classroom,” said Fordham student Melvin Martinez, who mentored Beyond Rising students last year.

As the Campus Ministry office’s best Spanish speaker, Martinez helped orient and train the office’s two interns. For Martinez, an Engineering Physics major at Fordham College at Rose Hill, watching the interns learn the ropes of the office and then complete tasks on their own was incredibly gratifying, he said.

“It was awesome; I think the fact that we spoke Spanish made us grow tight-knit, even to this day, I still reach out to the kids every now and then. But it’s something special, something that I would definitely do again, and they really enjoyed it as well,” Martinez said. 

Martinez grew up on Valentine Street, a short walk from Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus. Now studying at Fordham, he’s particularly interested in how the university interacts with its community, one of the CCEL’s primary functions, and is helping the center explore how to expand resources for marginalized community members.

 “I do believe that there’s a lot of kids that don’t feel motivated in pursuing their education; I’ve seen it myself growing up around here, too,” Martinez said. “There’s just no support, and then when you have no motivation, and no support, well, it’s like, ‘what’s the point?’”

Students who’ve interned with Fordham through Beyond Rising can apply to Fordham for free and will receive college planning help. Additionally, working with the CCEL, the university has committed to meeting 100% of the financial need for admitted students from a number of local schools, aiming to make college a more financially feasible option for students in the community, including Beyond Rising interns. 

Martinez, Ramos, and Gafney all hope the program can be expanded and implemented or copied throughout the city and even the country. Already this year, the Oyate group is helping Lehman College run a similar program, Ramos said. But he wants to see it grow to be year-round and duplicated at colleges across the city’s five boroughs.

“[We need programs] that prepare young people who have just joined the community here in the U.S. for viable pathways where they can build wealth, they can gain the education that they’re looking for, and build a sustainable and thriving life,” Gafney said.  

 –by Meredith Lawrence