Annie Duran Perez and Maria Martinez first met in November 2020 at a Día de los Muertos celebration organized by Centro Hispano, a local organization serving Latino youth and families in the Knoxville area.
The event served as a mixer for mentors and mentees taking part in Latinos Empowered to Advocate and Dream, or L.E.A.D., a college access program.
Duran was a nontraditional candidate for the program, which matches up to 15 high school juniors and seniors a year with mentors who can help them transition into college. She had already completed her associate’s degree from Pellissippi State Community College (PSCC) and was in her first semester as a child and family studies major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. But she struggled to find connection. With all her classes online, she didn’t register for a parking pass. She hadn’t taken a campus tour.
“I didn’t even feel like I was a student,” Duran said.
Centro Hispano reached out to Martinez, a coordinator for the Jones Center for Leadership and Service (JCLS). Martinez’s story paralleled Duran’s in ways: she had moved with her family from a large capital city—Bogotá in Colombia—to Greeneville, Tennessee, as a child; Duran had moved from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, after high school and settled with her mom and sister in Knoxville. They adapted to places that didn’t have many people who knew their language or culture. And they chose UT for college.
“Coming to the States, you feel the disconnect,” Martinez said. “Like your heart is in both places—ni de aquí, ni de allá. You’re not from here or from there. I really found my place at UT as a student, and I wanted Annie to feel like she had a home here, too.”
Over the past year, Martinez has served as a guide and resource for Duran, giving her the confidence to emerge as a student leader on campus. For Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, celebrated nationally from September 15 to October 15, the university is highlighting their relationship, and how it serves as a testament to the value of mentorship for college students.
Finding a Place Here
Two months after their first meeting, Martinez invited Duran to meet her outside the Student Union. They walked up to Martinez’s office. “This is where you can come to whenever you need to do homework,” she told her.
Then they went on a personalized walking tour of campus. It was the first time Duran had gotten an on-campus experience. Martinez took her to all the rooms and buildings where her classes would be in the spring semester, showed her the best places to study in Hodges Library and where to get food when the lines are busy at lunchtime.
As they walked, they talked. Duran has a younger sister, currently a student at PSCC. Martinez told her about her older siblings. They talked about food. Martinez and her partner started a tradition of cooking meals from around the world during the pandemic, and coincidentally they had chosen the Dominican Republic as their next food destination.
“It’s the typical Latinx conversation in Knoxville,” Martinez said. “Where do you get your arepas? Where do you get the Dominican fried cheese? ‘Oh, I go to Atlanta or Nashville.’ You bond over food that makes you feel at home even when you’re far away from home.”
Duran mentioned she was interested in studying abroad, so Martinez showed her the Programs Abroad office—then she emailed someone at the office, copying Duran, and asked about what opportunities were available.
“She didn’t sugarcoat anything and give me all this information I’d never remember,” Duran said. Martinez brought her to the Frieson Black Culture Center, where she met Daniel Dominguez, a coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Student Life who advises the Latin American Student Organization (LASO). Eventually, Duran started attending meetings and made enough of an impression that she was nominated to serve as an officer; she is now the secretary of the organization for the 2021–22 academic year.
“That day was so valuable to me,” Duran said. “Before that, I was so scared. I felt more confident I could do this. I’m already here. This is my school.”
Duran also took part in an alternative spring break program—VOLbreaks, overseen by the JCLS. Over a long weekend, Duran volunteered with Emerald Youth Foundation and Bridge Refugee Services and attended workshops about educational disparities facing students in different parts of the city.
“She went from not stepping foot on campus to doing the most,” Martinez said.
Growing Into Leadership
Even though she had felt timid in the early months of her time at UT, Duran knew for a long time that she wanted to become an advocate.
After arriving in Knoxville, she spent a year volunteering in Centro Hispano’s children’s programs before being hired in 2018 to coordinate the after-school program at West View Elementary, where she also serves as liaison between Spanish-speaking families and the school.
“Annie moved here right after she turned 18 and was faced with a new culture, new language, and a new educational system,” said Megan Barolet-Fogarty, director of youth and family engagement for Centro Hispano. Barolet-Fogarty supervised Duran as a volunteer and hired her after being impressed by the way she supported the children and families at West View. “She overcame huge challenges and became an invaluable part of our team.”
Duran became involved with the Latino Student Success Coalition, a citywide group of high school students, educators, and community members who advocate for Latino students in Knox County Schools. She traveled to Nashville, where she met with state legislators and shared her story as well as the access challenges to higher education faced by immigrant students. She also attended a national conference in Washington, DC, for UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization.
Barolet-Fogarty watched Duran’s confidence grow as she became more connected on campus through Martinez.
“She now had a relationship with someone who had gone through some of the same things, was connected with student life, and that gave her so much more access,” Barolet-Fogarty said.
After learning more about Duran’s ambitions, Martinez sent her an application for the Marva Rudolph Scholarship, awarded to students who demonstrate a commitment to building a more accessible, equitable, and welcoming campus. “I really put a piece of myself into that application,” Duran said. She wrote about her growth, representation for Latino students at UT, and her growing advocacy work.
Duran was awarded the scholarship, and she credited Martinez’s encouragement for that and all the other successes that have come her way in the last year.
“I know I can pretty much talk to her about anything,” Duran said. “I can text her any time. She won’t judge me; she’ll be there to support me.”
The impact of mentorship is two-way street. When she was an undergraduate majoring in Hispanic studies almost a decade ago, Martinez felt like she was paving her own way until she found two of her mentors. Luis Cano, a professor in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, and Patricia Robledo, former business liaison for the City of Knoxville and a member of the Latino Alumni Council (LAC). Both are Colombian. And after years of living in East Tennessee themselves, they helped her understand she had a place here. She wasn’t an imposter. She was a leader in the making.
Today Martinez serves as president-elect of the LAC.
As a child and family studies major, Duran chose to concentrate on community outreach. She’s been learning a lot about family dynamics and child development. She sees the application of her academic pursuits every day as part of her work with Centro Hispano.
But she’s also learned a lot about herself in the four years since she left the Dominican Republic: her accent, her identity as an Afro-Latina, her passion for helping kids. “Being here has made me think about all the things who make me who I am,” Duran said.
When she graduates this spring, she hopes to work in the nonprofit world, maybe for an organization like Centro Hispano in a larger city with more Latino presence. One thing is for sure: Martinez will be there cheering her on in whatever comes next.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)