After hearing other students talk about how isolating the high school’s English learning program can be — and thinking of her own family who immigrated from Mexico and Cuba — now-18-year-old Romy Greenwald decided to start the MiSendero program in April 2020, which provides English learners the opportunity to serve as Spanish tutors and earn community service hours.
“A lot of [students who were recent immigrants and English learners] told me how they felt really isolated in this separate English learning program and really struggled to meet students outside of it and feel like they were part of the school,” Greenwald said. “So that’s kind of what gave me the idea to find a way to bring these two groups of students together, but also create an opportunity for English learners to feel like leaders at school and to be more integrated into the community.”
MiSendero, which is Spanish for “my path,” also hosts intercultural exchange events with fun and educational components, featuring cultural foods, the Mexican game Loteria and more.
“It’s a really good way to not only have fun and bring students together through that, but also to educate about the culture of the immigrants and their experience,” Greenwald said. “I think the main feedback we receive is that students are really eager and excited to be a part of this because it’s really one of the only ways for them to meet people outside of the English learning program, but also to gain the leadership opportunity. … It’s really helped inspire students to become leaders in other ways at school, outside of the program even, and use their unique talents and skills to do that.”
While Greenwald started MiSendero during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said there was lots of encouragement and support from the bilingual education teachers and the school administration to bring the program to the school when in-person learning resumed.
The program was welcomed by students, and MiSendero now has five chapters in high schools throughout California and Florida, with Greenwald overseeing and providing support for all of the chapters.
“I think what’s really special about MiSendero is that it’s all led by students and they’re really the engine for its success,” Greenwald said. “The whole program is student-operated and student-led, which I think is really important because, for a lot of these students, it’s the first time they’ve felt like leaders at their school, and it’s opened up a lot of opportunities for them.”
The original chapter that Greenwald founded is at Dos Pueblos High School, and other schools with MiSendero chapters include Santa Barbara High School, San Marcos High School, Ventura High School, and Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Florida.
“Working with these students has inspired me to focus on growing the program to include as many schools and students as possible,” Greenwald said in her application for the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. “What started as a way to help some of my English learning friends participate in activities at my school has turned into a much bigger dream of creating pathways for immigrant student integration and success across the country.”
Greenwald is one of 15 teenagers across the United States to be selected for the annual Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards this year, which awards up to 15 Jewish teenagers with $36,000 for their leadership efforts.
“Young people have the power and passion to create ripples of good and repair the world. They are innovating and reimagining ways to tackle challenges in their communities and around the world,” the organization stated on its website. “Now in its 17th year, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards were the vision of Bay Area philanthropist Hellen Diller, whose determination to cultivate new generations of socially committed leaders continues to guide the Awards program — honoring young leaders who exemplify the spirit of tikkun olam, a Jewish value meaning ‘to repair the world.’”
While Greenwald just graduated from Dos Pueblos High School and plans to continue her education at Duke University, she said there are students and teachers at the high school interested in continuing the program, and she has plans to further expand MiSendero by recruiting team leaders in college to serve as mentors in regions across the country.
“It’s a win-win for students because not only does it create an opportunity for English learners to be leaders,” Greenwald said, “but also students taking Spanish classes don’t really have the opportunity to practice their conversation skills in class and they can receive tutoring for free from peers, and also make new friends and it brings these two groups together while benefiting both of them.”