Last month, two high school students from Providence spent a week in Washington, D.C. Before you ask, “So what?” take a few moments to find out who they are and why they went. By the time you’ve read to the end of this page, you’ll realize that this simple story contains a meaningful message about how real world-based learning can be rocket fuel for young minds... and how adults’ faith in the abilities of young people can be the match that sends them soaring.
The two students are sophomore Jenly Tavarez and junior Decontee Roberts; both attend Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School in South Providence. When I talked with them, Jenly and Decontee were gearing up to participate in Close Up, a national organization that provides learning experiences in Washington, D.C., to develop students’ leadership skills while familiarizing them with the workings of our democracy. Close Up students meet with Congressional delegates, participate in study visits to landmarks, visit the Supreme Court, take part in seminars and debates and observe Congress in action.
For these two students – the only participants from the Providence Public Schools – the Close Up trip is a singular opportunity to put their passions into context. “I have been taking AP government this year, and we’ve spent months having class discussions about how government works. I have so many questions in my notebook and I can’t wait to ask them,” said Decontee. “We’ve had so many conversations and debates in class, and I have so many ideas. I want to go to Washington and ask the people who work in government questions. How do they feel about the work that they do? What do they believe?”
Jenly noted that she was excited about the trip because, “I want to study law to learn everything that it has to do with government. Now I am going to go to Washington, D.C., to experience it firsthand. I am going to see how it is done in our nation’s capital.”
Both Decontee and Jenly have served as interns for Senator Juan Pichardo, and both are immigrants who, since their respective arrivals in the United States, have not spent time outside of Providence. Their Close Up trip represents a huge expansion not only of geography but also of possibilities.
Decontee came with her family to Providence in 2007 as a refugee. “I remember war,” she shared, “and I remember what it was like to come somewhere where there is no war, where it is peaceful and safe, where you are able to put your mind to something and get it. I want to become a doctor and travel. I want to know about different countries and how they work together. Having the opportunity to go to Washington gives me more details about how the United States works. I want to know everything and I am willing to do whatever it takes to get there.”
Jenly’s focus is the law. “Almost half of my family are lawyers in the Dominican Republic and through them, I’ve been able to see that laws are different here. In the United States, there is more structure and fairness. This has made me realize how important it is, when I become a lawyer, to defend people the correct way.”
Though both students received some funding from Close Up, they have devoted significant time and effort to raise money for the trip. Despite the significant financial challenge, assistant principal Jonathan Mendelsohn, who brought the Close Up opportunity to the attention of Alvarez’s faculty, is committed to including more students from throughout Providence in the years to come. “Students who are economically disadvantaged should have the same opportunities as others. They will benefit as leaders and students, and the community will benefit,” said Mendelsohn, who wants 40 or more students from middle and high schools across the city.
Alvarez is one of five Providence schools identified this year as needing intervention to spur academic success. “The students’ role in school change is critical,” said Mendelsohn. “We want students to get student government off the ground as a part of building positive school culture. We want students to more actively pursue opportunities to advocate for what they believe in, to address and solve issues. Students have to feel invested in their schools, not only here at Alvarez but all over Providence.”
For Jenly, the Close Up trip feels like destiny. “I want to be a leader for the whole school. I want everyone to want this for the school. I want Providence to want this for Providence. We are going to raise the game for everyone.”
So do your part. Find ways to light and stoke fires under our city’s teenage students, either by supporting their participation in Close Up or in other ways. As Jenly says, let’s want this for our young people.