Six years ago, Yatzil Romero Rodriguez migrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to Charlottesville and didn’t speak English. She said she struggled to fit in at one point because of the language barrier.
As with many immigrant students, she’s taking part in Albemarle County Public Schools’ English for Speakers of Other Languages program. She’s also accomplishing a big milestone. On May 1, she became the first English as a Second or Other Language student elected to the Student Council at Albemarle High School. She will be one of two Latinx on the 20-member council.
“It was challenging, but I got through it,” she said.
Romero Rodriguez, a ninth-grader at AHS, will assume the class officer position in the fall. Her tasks will include listening to students’ concerns and taking those issues to the Student Council to try to make changes at the school.
She said she ran for the position in hopes of making a difference, explaining that other Latinx students might be able to connect with her because of her background. As she’s now fluent in English, she said those with language barriers who speak Spanish can communicate with her.
“I feel like me representing the school as a class officer for sophomore year, they can come to me [and I can] take their ideas to the Student Council and make a change in the school for the future,” she said.
Romero Rodriguez plans to run for vice president of the Student Council for her junior year and president for her senior year, stressing that it’s important for the panel to be diverse.
“We can build a better school if there’s a better communication with minority students,” she said.
She feels welcomed now that she speaks English, but that wasn’t always the case. She said she knows there are other students who might not feel welcomed because they are not fluent in English.
She said she wants her story to inspire others. It was difficult to adapt to her new life in the United States, saying that making friends with American students was tough. She thought they probably wouldn’t like her because she’s Latinx, she said.
But Romero Rodriguez has found her way around.
The 15-year-old keeps a busy schedule, taking part in the school’s Latinx Club, Advancement via Individual Determination and Key Club, among other activities. She plans to study to become a math teacher or focus on criminology at James Madison University or Christopher Newport University.
“If you keep doing schoolwork or learning how to speak English and write it,” then everything will fall into place, she said.
Romero Rodriguez’s determination to succeed in school propelled faculty members to encourage her to run for the Student Council.
Russell Carlock, a teacher and a faculty sponsor of the school’s Latinx Club, told Romero Rodriguez about the student elections. The application process involved Romero Rodriguez getting signatures from the school body. Carlock said he was impressed by how fast Romero Rodriguez was able to turn the application in.
“This says a lot about her motivation,” he said.
Carlock also lauded Romero Rodriguez for being humble.
This year, the Latinx Club produced a short film to combat stereotypes that immigrants face in the school and in the community. As the club discussed who the audience for the film would be, Carlock said Romero Rodriguez listened to students.
“She’s someone who will sit and be very on top of listening to what other people are saying but won’t necessarily put her voice out there unless someone asks her to give her opinion,” he said. “And then she gives this opinion. And it’s very deep and thoughtful and people listen to her for that.”
On Romero Rodriguez’s aspirations for higher office on the Student Council, Carlock said that if those are the goals she has for herself, he has no doubt that she will accomplish them.
“It just blows my mind that she’s doing this at the age of 15,” he said, adding that he wasn’t as mature as Romero Rodriguez to take on leadership roles when he was her age.
In looking at the school, Carlock said it’s important to have a wide variety of students who come from different backgrounds who can come together to solve problems as a community.
Nearly 2,000 students enrolled at AHS in fall 2018. White students accounted for 57.3 percent of the student body, according to data released by the Virginia Department of Education. Latinx students made up 13.9%; 14.6% were black; Asians were 8.5%; and those identifying as two or more races accounted for 5.6%.
“In democracy, representation is everything,” Carlock said. “This generation of kids is phenomenal. A lot of what we — as educators and adults — can do is create spaces where they have a voice and power to work together to solve things. Once we do that, we’ll be really impressed and surprised with how much great things they can accomplish.”
Representation is something that also matters to Monticello High School alumnus Richard Aguilar. The 2009 graduate served as class president all four years. He said having minority students in leadership roles can help schools in many aspects.
As the only Latinx on the Student Council, it was important for him to connect with other minority students. He said he was able to communicate with different demographics, making sure they felt included in school events. He asked students about the types of songs they’d like to hear at pep rallies, homecoming or prom.
“Gasolina” by Puerto Rican singer Daddy Yankee was a popular song at the time, so he made sure it was played at school events.
“I was able to fill in that representation …,” he said.
Having students in leadership roles also can help diminish or eliminate stereotypes or prejudice, Aguilar said.
“If more minorities were involved in leadership positions, they can actually bring their experiences [to give] a level of understanding,” he said.