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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ask an Alum: Jonathan Villafuerte ’19

CSP alumnus Jonathan Villafuerte

Since he was a teenager, Jonathan Villafuerte ’19 has been inspired to empower young people who others might write off. As a freshman at Point Loma Nazarene University, he got involved tutoring first-generation college students. He later joined the staff of Reality Changers — a City Heights-based non-profit organization that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds on their path to college graduation (Villafuerte is also a Reality Changers alumnus). In May, Villafuerte achieved one of his own academic goals, earning his master’s in school counseling from San Diego State University.

Currently the Coordinator of Student Success and Equity at High Tech High in San Diego, Villafuerte recently turned heads by giving a TEDx talk on the dangers of labeling young people using deficit-based language. In response, he coined the term FLY Scholars to “reframe the narrative” around this group. We recently chatted with Jonathan to learn more about the meaning behind FLY Scholars, the TEDx talk experience and the impact of his COE master’s program.
As an educator, counselor and mental health advocate I know that for many kids these terms may impact their identity and perception of self.                                         —Jonathan Villafuerte

What’s the idea behind FLY Scholars and how did it come about? 

“I start my work day by opening my email account and discovering yet another request for help. The subject line typically reads, ‘First-gen/Low-income Students,’ and I cringe that this label is still being used by the education community. It was at Helix Charter that I was introduced to the F.L.Y. Club — a group of first-generation low income youth that would meet weekly to participate in student-led college readiness. Their ability to be empowered by their background motivated me to spread this new concept to the rest of the educational world. Everything I have ever accomplished has been inspired by my students, or scholars as I like to call them. This is how FLY Scholars was born.

Why do you think the issue of labeling students using deficit-based language resonated with you? 

"We are labeled each and every day. Society has a history of categorizing and stereotyping people based on their backgrounds. Unfortunately, for diverse communities, this has resulted in us being called 'minorities,' 'lower class,' and even 'illegals.' As an educator, counselor and mental health advocate, I know that for many kids these terms may impact their identity and perception of self. I believe that it is better to use strength-based language that will instead create resilience and grit."

What inspired you to bring this message to the TEDx stage? 

“As a teenager, I remember coming home from high school to open an admission letter from a college. I was happy to discover that I had been accepted. After sharing the news with my mother, she began to cry and proceeded to tell me an unforgettable story. When I was in elementary school, the principal hosted a parent meeting where they shared first-generation data, and told all the parents not to be surprised if only one student in the entire school makes it to college. My mom looked at me and said, 'You’re the one, mijo.' Despite having all the odds against me, my family always encouraged higher education, and I believe that it was their dream that got me to this point. Therefore, I want to make sure that every child I come into contact with — and every TEDx viewer — understands that anything is possible with the right support systems.”

Is public speaking and performance something that comes naturally to you? 

“No, as a child I was always referred to by teachers as the ‘shy kid.’ I continued to accept this label for many years. In reality, I was simply introverted and observant, but their words scared my self-esteem. It wasn’t until high school that I was introduced to the concept of public speaking. I realized that I wasn’t the ‘shy kid’ that my teachers believed me to be — I just needed enough time and the right stage. I am still introverted and observant — it’s my essence — but now I’ve learned how to turn on the switch when I need to.”

What kind of impact do you hope your work and advocacy will have in the future? 

“I hope that educational institutions at all levels begin to use the term FLY Scholars to identify at-hope (not at-risk) students. I hope that students across America and beyond create their own versions of a FLY Club, as created at Helix Charter. Lastly, I hope that every person who reads this knows that we have complete power over the words we use to describe ourselves, by using strength-based language we can start to optimize our growth and development.”

How did your SDSU experience help shape who you are today? 

“The School Counseling program at San Diego State University has provided me with an immense wealth of information. It has allowed me to discover new concepts, skills and passions. Most importantly, it has created professional relationships that continue to grow. I am forever grateful for my mentors and experiences in the College of Education’s graduate school program.”

What advice can you offer to current COE students looking to make a difference in the education field? 

“Speak up, even if your voice trembles. Advocate for what you believe is true and important. Get involved in the communities of the children you serve. Build connections with your professors and supervisors. Be present, especially around students. Every day counts, good or bad. As Tupac Shakur once said, ‘I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world.’ And that's our job, It's to spark somebody else watching us.”