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Seeking a better future: from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago

Seeking a better future: from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago

Alumna Letitia Zwickert is on a mission to improve the lives of students, immigrants, and refugees. Photo credit: Univision Chicago

When political science alumna Letitia Zwickert first moved to the Mississippi Delta nearly 20 years ago, she became hyper-aware of the realities of racism and injustice around her.
 
“I arrived in the Mississippi Delta at my rental apartment after a long cross-country journey to find it full of rodents,” said Zwickert (MA ’99), who also served as a Fulbright scholar researching social injustice and racism. “When I called the landlord, he said ‘my boy would be ’round in the morning to take care of it.’”
 
That “boy” was actually a 70-year-old black man. The rawness of such a racist and dehumanizing comment changed Zwickert.
 
“I knew life could and must be made better by those of us who are in a position to offer access to opportunity, to reinforce a more equitable and a socially just society.”
 
This experience and other forms of blatant racism prompted Zwickert to focus on social justice issues. Her experience through the K-12 Fulbright-Schuman Scholarship, she researched the best practices in Europe for refugees and disadvantaged high school students during the refugee crisis in 2016, inspired Zwickert created MENTEE. A Chicago-based organization geared to support high school-aged students in gaining skills and knowledge to further their education and lives beyond high school. MENTEE offers students a chance to develop a personalized work/life plans, job shadowing, and personal workshops on confidence and goal setting.
 
Here Zwickert discusses MENTEE, her inspiration and goals for the nonprofit, as well as her experience at Loyola.
 

What inspired MENTEE?

As the first K-12 Fulbright-Schuman Scholar, I realized I needed to do more. It left me with more questions than answers. I realized many of the challenges faced there were essentially problems without borders. The same challenges are faced in Chicago and in other communities in the U.S.
 

Why immigration and refugees, especially with immigration being such a hot button topic now in the U.S.?

When I was developing my proposal to apply for the Fulbright-Schuman Scholar award, I knew immediately I wanted to focus on people who are not treated fairly and equitably by society. So MENTEE focuses on immigrants and refugees, and those who are low-income. We need to support these communities from the ground up. MENTEE can provide students with services and knowledge that help address their challenges and give them a pathway to success.

What do you hope students gain from being involved in MENTEE?

MENTEE is meant to help our students want to stay in high school by giving them the ability to try different jobs on for size through our cross-sector job shadows and other work experiences, while learning more about themselves. We hope the students will look beyond graduation to their post-secondary future with a strong network of supporters surrounding them. My goal is to look at all of the students' needs and see how I can make sure they are looked after either directly or indirectly by my organization and my partnerships. The hope of MENTEE is that, as a result of going through the program, students will be more confident, successful adults with new access and means to contribute to society.

What’s the significance of the MENTEE logo and what does it mean to you?

I am a big believer in supporting the richness of diverse cultures within our community. The adinkra symbol of MENTEE reflects the respect for diversity and the pursuit of knowledge and learning throughout life. MENTEE is made to reinforce that pursuit of knowledge, and to celebrate the richness of the languages and cultures the students come here with. We need to let all new students know they welcome. They can learn English, fit in at their school, and also retain their own cultural identity. The adinkra reflects all this; it's a celebration of culture.

What was your proudest or happiness moment with MENTEE?

As a pilot year program, there have been many ups and downs as I've worked to develop and grow MENTEE. Currently, I work with three Chicago public schools and have teacher liaisons at each school who represent MENTEE and work with students. One of my happiest moments was when one of the liaisons from Mather High School called me and said, “Please Letitia, I have so many students who want to be a part of MENTEE, can we just add a few more to the list?” It made me feel so good about all I was doing.

How has your experience at Loyola influenced you?

Years ago, when I was doing my MA in political science, Claudio Katz, the department chair at the time, was very much a mentor to me. In providing guidance, he often shared his personal stories and thoughts. One of our conversations was about my future choices, and he recommended that I should teach in secondary education. I didn't fully see that for myself, but that conversation stayed with me and I revisited it often. When I finally realized I was searching for ways to make a difference, I knew Professor Katz was right. Not only did I take his advice, I convinced my husband to do the same. He left finance, I left Harvard, and we began our journey into education. So yes, Loyola and Professor Katz left an incredible mark on my life.