By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Connie Iglesias (left) with Bianca Arias.
Castro Valley High School senior Bianca Arias plans on becoming a nurse, and she has applied to several universities to achieve her goal. She gives much of the credit for her academic success to the “strong support system” she receives from belonging to Mujeres, a group that meets regularly with school counselor Connie Iglesias.
“Instead of thinking short-term, I’m thinking long-term,” says Arias, who is the club’s president.
Iglesias founded the club because she saw some female students getting into fights, not succeeding at school, and even dropping out. She worried that they were making choices that might lead to a “rougher life” in adulthood — affecting their future relationships, career choices and overall well-being.
The Castro Valley Teachers Association member wanted to put these girls, mostly Latina, on a better path, and asked some of them to join a group called Mujeres, which is Spanish for “women.” Programs reaching out to minority youth, she observes, often focus on boys rather than girls, who may fall through the cracks.
“Traditionally, these kinds of girls don’t talk to adults and might be failing in class,” she says. “I can be that caring adult who wants them to succeed. I know what it’s like. I am a Latina, and some of my family members did not graduate from high school. I call their parents. I do a lot of hand-holding.”
Founded three years ago, Mujeres meets weekly for lunch to discuss life, coping skills, and how to be successful in school. During meetings, Iglesias shares advice for taking the PSAT and SAT tests, keeping up with schoolwork, and applying to colleges. There are also meetings to discuss issues such as self-esteem, family, friendships, peer pressure, romantic relationships and gangs.
“I try to connect them with school culture,” says Iglesias, who came up with the idea for Mujeres while earning her counseling degree in graduate school. “Sometimes the Latino population has trouble feeling that connection when they are in a big school setting, which is why they have the highest dropout rate. I tell my girls that they need to change the stereotype people have of Latinos by working hard, not fighting, and doing well in school.”
While the group is geared toward helping Latinas, it is also open to any female students who wish to join. The goal is to help members close the achievement gap, feel more confident, and make good choices for the future.
Stacey Aguilar, 16, says the club opens both “eyes” and “doors” for its members. Her older sister didn’t even know what a UC campus was until Iglesias explained to her that “college” could be different from a community college. Today her sister is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz.
“I also want to get into a good school so I can have a good job,” says Aguilar, the club’s vice president. “This club makes me more serious about my grades, staying motivated and serving as a good example for freshman students.”
Iglesias is proud to see the progress and personal growth of her students.
“I love these kids so much, and it’s great to see them take up a leadership role within Mujeres,” says Iglesias. “If they have a plan — whether it’s college or vocational school — they will learn how to take care of themselves, reach their goals, and eventually become role models for others.”