by Dawn Montecalvo
Hollywood celebrates rags to riches stories in which the lead character defies the odds to achieve his or her dreams. In every script, there is that one individual — often a family member, teacher, neighbor or coach — who offers inspiration, guidance and motivation.
For Miguel Lopez, an 18-year-old, that individual was Juan Lopez. Although the two are not related, they share a deep connection worthy of a blockbuster film.
Miguel was raised in Immokalee, the third of five children. His family’s focus was meeting the necessities of life—food, shelter and clothing. Neither of his parents completed their formal education, so planning and paying for college seemed overly ambitious.
Meanwhile, Juan’s story was not much different… it just happened a decade earlier. He, too, grew up in a low-income household. College wasn’t an expectation. Yet, he had a dream to work in the financial industry. As a high schooler, Juan participated in Guadalupe Center’s college-preparatory Tutor Corps Program, which provides students with academic guidance, scholarship assistance, financial literacy and wages for tutoring children in Guadalupe Center’s educational programs. He was admitted to the University of South Florida and spent the next four years pursuing a finance degree.
Now 30, Juan manages a $60 million portfolio as a commercial lender for Regions Bank. Two years ago, he moved back to Immokalee full-time and returned to Guadalupe Center —this time as a Tutor Corps mentor working one-on-one with Miguel.
“I was in their shoes 10, 15 years ago,” said Juan, a 2011 graduate of Immokalee High School. Juan drew on personal experiences with his mentor as a youth to create conversations that would help Miguel succeed in college and beyond: time management, selecting a major, campus life, setting a budget and dealing with adversity.
“It means a lot to me that my mentor was actually raised in Immokalee,” Miguel said. “Knowing he has literally been in my shoes and has returned to our hometown to pay forward what he has learned inspires me every day to keep working hard.”
Miguel started college this fall and is studying biochemistry at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. He hopes to become a pharmaceutical researcher.
Miguel’s success story repeats itself daily at Guadalupe Center. Students come in with the odds stacked against them. Under the tutelage of Guadalupe Center staff and mentors like Juan, students overcome the odds by using high-quality education to create endless opportunities for themselves and their families. “You might have a difficult upbringing or circumstances, but anyone can be successful if they take advantage of the opportunities given to them,” said Juan.
One of those opportunities is Guadalupe Center’s strong partnerships with colleges and universities across the country. All 27 seniors in Tutor Corps’ Class of 2022, including Miguel, are attending college this fall. In many cases, university administration, Guadalupe Center and donors create financial packages that make college affordable for every student. In fact, many graduate with no debt.
Guadalupe Center is recruiting mentors like Juan who are willing to share their insights and guidance with high school students. Mentors come from a variety of professional, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Every individual, from corporate executives and retirees to teachers and first responders, had to overcome some sort of challenge along the way,” said Daniel Martinez, director of Tutor Corps’ high school program. “Mentors need to be willing to share their stories and offer lessons learned so their mentees can learn from those experiences.”
Activities for Tutor Corps mentors include a dinner with mentors, mentees and parents, a cultural event and a picnic. Face-to-face communication is encouraged, but many mentors rely on text, telephone, Zoom and email to maintain dialogue.
Mentors play a significant role in the lives of students and demonstrate that college — and their dreams — are within reach for students in Immokalee. I hope you will consider mentoring. Our students benefit from your experience and talents.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR and Featured Photo:
Dawn Montecalvo is president at Guadalupe Center, which provides educational services to more than 1,750 students annually in Immokalee. To learn more about mentoring opportunities, please visit GuadalupeCenter.org or call 239.657.7711