Paying it forward
Senior Gio Carrion is using his experience as a U.S. immigrant to help middle school students prepare for college.
Just seven years ago Gio Carrion was a newcomer to the United States, a Duluth High School sophomore with little understanding of American school systems and the process of applying to college.
This month, Carrion will graduate from UGA, with a degree in economics.
But the lessons he’s learned along the way won’t leave with him.
They’ll stay with the 30 Athens middle school students that Carrion has mentored—and the many more he has influenced—during his four years at UGA.
Carrion is the UGA Fanning Institute’s first undergraduate fellow, a position created to provide students a chance to have a hands-on service and outreach experience before graduating from college.
In that role Carrion has served as student coordinator for the Big Dreams (Sueños Grandes) Project at Coile Middle School, one of Athens lowest-performing schools with a large population of Latino students.
Through the project, Carrion has encouraged students to stay in school and pursue postsecondary education, despite the obstacles many of them face. He has brought in speakers from UGA to help the students understand what they need to do now to prepare for college. Most importantly, he has shared his story—of moving to a new country as a young man—to show the stu-dents that college is an achievable goal.
“These kids had never envisioned anything beyond middle school,” says Kelli Bivins (MEd ’01), a Coile Middle School teacher. “They see Gio is doing this. They can see themselves now in a post-high school situation.”
For Carrion, the project is a way to pay forward the help he received when he first started thinking about college. He was just 14 in 2002 when his parents decided to move to the U.S. from Peru. The economy there was crumbling and although both parents had been gainfully employed—his dad was an engineer, his mom a nurse—they could no longer find jobs. His brother, Enrique, then a high school junior, began exploring the possibility of college.
Carrion, right, leads the middle school students, including Daicy, center, on a tour of campus during a recent visit to UGA. Daicy hopes to one day attend college to become an architect.
Enrique found out where to take the SAT, how to apply to college and where to turn for financial assistance. He graduated from Georgia State University and now is enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Massachusetts.
His effort paved the way for Carrion, who learned of the Latino Youth Leadership program, a summer initiative for high school students, sponsored by UGA. Gio Carrion enrolled in the program the summer of 2004. He returned the next summer, an incoming freshman at UGA. Each summer since he has returned to serve as a mentor to other high school students.
“I want to be able to provide some help to people who resemble the situation I was in,” he says. “I want to help them with the things I didn’t understand.”
It is a crisp February morning when the 30 students arrive for their much-anticipated UGA visit. Carrion and Bivins have prepared them for weeks.
Danny Bivins (MHP, ’00), who coordinates the undergraduate fellowship program at Fanning and is married to Kelli Bivins, kicks things off with a slide show. On the screen is a map of North and South America, showing countries where some of the children were born.
“How long did it take you to get here?” Bivins asks the students.
“A long time,” says one boy who came to Georgia from Mexico.
“That’s 1,800 miles,” Bivins says. “UGA is just three miles from Coile.
The students break into small groups and set off to tour the campus with Carrion and other student mentors. For the next few hours, they sit in on classes, visit the Tate Student Center, snap pictures of the football stadium, and take a peek at Carrion’s room at Oglethorpe Residence Hall before heading to lunch.
Though awed by the selection at Snelling dining hall, most come to the table with hot dogs and pizza.
“I was not planning to go to college; I thought it was boring,” says Josefina, a seventh grader at Coile. “Then I met Gio and he was telling us lots of cool things about it.”
Jennifer, also in seventh grade, says she wants to become an immigration lawyer to help people who come here with little knowledge of the system.
“I want to help them have rights,” she says softly.
These students, Danny Bivins says, might never have had such ambitions if it weren’t for Gio. “He is helping to demystify the steps along the way.”
For more about the Fanning Institute’s Latino Youth Leadership program, go to http://www.fanning.uga.edu.