Finding Identity Through Education and Research

Everyone’s journey through college is different, Verenisse Ponce-Soria learned that in ways she never expected. During her time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Verenisse found her purpose through her passions at LatinxEd and the ways she can amplify the voices of the Southern Latinx youth.

Verenisse grew up in Pikeville, North Carolina where the population is under 1,000, predominantly white and only 3% of the residents speak Spanish. As a child of Mexican immigrants living in a rural town completely juxtaposed to her familial life, she struggled with her identity. It wasn’t until college that Verenisse was able to truly come to terms with the issues and confusion she’d struggled with.

Ricky Hurtado (right) and Verenisse (left) leaving their handprints at the CLC for the Beginning of the Year Celebration.

Like most students, Verenisse started her educational career at UNC-CH blissfully unsure but prepared. She thought like most students she was going to go to class, study, and get her degree. What she realized after her first-year was that she was yearning for more, and she needed to find the right outlet for her. By chance, she took Elaine Townsend Utin and Ricky Hurtado’s class, Education 510 — The Latinx Experience in Education. It was here that she found the outlet she was missing and passions she didn’t realize she had.

Elaine and Ricky’s class validated Verenisse’s life experiences associated with being a Southern Latina. “Discussing the experiences we read about and the thought processes teachers go through when teaching Latinx kids was really stressful. It was here that I realized my own problems and experiences in the education system were not only valid but ongoing” she said. This class ignited a passion for education, and specifically a passion to solve the issues the Southern Latinx community faces.

Verenisse at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education Propel the World launch party.

When Elaine and Ricky unveiled LatinxEd in the Fall of 2018 Verenisse knew she had to get involved. She started working with LatinxEd’s Somos Carolina program through an internship in Spring 2019, but it wasn’t until she was faced with a dilemma in her policy research that it all finally clicked.

“I had been working on a study about early college students on 4-year college campuses. I had done the literature review and developed methods. Then, a friend of mine decided to do the same research project,” she said. Due to her friend’s decision, Verenisse decided to change her research focus but was unsure of what to change it to. After reflecting on her passions and what mattered to her, she reached out to Elaine and Ricky with an idea she had.

Verenisse (back row and second from right) with her McNair cohort group during their weekend presenting their research at FIU.

Verenisse shifted the focus of her research to Somos Carolina (Somos), LatinxEd’s flagship initiative. “I had to see the kids through the end of the program,” she said about her decision. To Verenisse’s surprise, they fully supported her idea. Elaine and Ricky provided huge support and it was because of them that she was able to do the research that is now shaping the rest of her life.

The basis of her research was understanding if, and how, Somos helps students navigate the challenges they face in the academic setting. Verenisse formed focus groups with the Somos Scholars and listened to their thoughts. When she analyzed their responses, she discovered a common theme, the students had formed a family within Somos. The students bonded over a shared background and culture and formed a strong support system amongst themselves.

“While we knew that what we were creating with Somos was special, this research really proved it.”

Through the research, Verenisse realized the uniqueness of the needs of Southern Latinx youth. Verenisse believes that because the strengths, perspectives, and lives the Southern Latinx students bring with them are so unique, the educational system lacks in its understanding of how to serve them appropriately. “As someone who understands the challenges these students face first-hand, it’s so important for me to continue this work and help make systemic change.”

Verenisse (front left) with the LatinxEd team at their staff holiday party in 2019.

This research eventually led her to an educational shift. By letting go of what she thought was meant for her, she allowed this research and the support she received to change her direction completely. “When things like this happen I always remind myself of a “dicho” or Spanish saying,

“Lo que es para ti, aunque te quites, lo que no, aunque te pongas.”

Translated this means “if it’s meant for you, it will be yours even if you move from its path, if it's not, it won’t be yours even if you put yourself in its path.” She always wanted to give back to her community and now she finally knew how.

Verenisse after winning the NC Latino Diamante Award for Education in 2019.

Verenisse graduated this spring and is on her way to the University of California at Irvine to obtain a Ph.D. in Education on the Education Policy and Social Context strand. During her time at UC Irvine, she hopes to gain the tools and knowledge to conduct research so that she can come back to her community in North Carolina and research programs and policies that benefit Southern Latinx youth. While her journey at UNC-CH as an undergraduate ended, Verenisse doesn’t plan on being away for long. “I’m only leaving so that I can come back and bring new knowledge and resources to my community.” Because there are still so many questions that need to be explored, answered, and acted on, Verenisse intends to return and continue her work in the South.

“Being a Southern Latina is everything to me. It’s who I am, it’s the work that I do, it’s the systems that I challenge. Being a part of this Southern Latinx community is beautiful and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but because I love it so much, I will also continue to challenge and criticize oppressive systems and beliefs to ensure the improvement and growth of our community.”

With passion, determination, and goals to change the way policies affect Southern Latinx youth, Verenisse is leaving UNC with much more than a degree, but a better understanding of herself and her culture.

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At LatinxEd, we teach, train, and brainstorm ways to improve experiences of Latinx students. These posts are highlights of our students’ work and thoughts.

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LatinxEd Community

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At LatinxEd, we teach, train, and brainstorm ways to improve experiences of Latinx students. These posts are highlights of our students’ work and thoughts.

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