As an immigrant, University of Pennsylvania junior Pamela Fuentes was assisted in her journey to become the first in her family to attend college. Now, she is helping others to access higher education.
A Latin American and Latino studies major in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, Fuentes grew up in Houston, where she started in 5th grade at a Knowledge Is Power Program charter school, staying there until she finished high school. A national network of schools that helps students from underserved communities to prepare for success in college, KIPP was co-founded by 1991 Penn alumnus Mike Feinberg.
In alignment with the Penn Compact goal of increasing access to educational opportunities, Penn has pledged to enroll 15 KIPP students who meet admissions requirements each year.
As a KIPP alumna, Fuentes is thankful to be a part of this legacy and is paying it forward by volunteering to help guide KIPP students in West Philadelphia.
Along with other KIPP alumni, Fuentes launched a mentoring program three years ago. From September through April, they mentor high schoolers at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy on Saturdays.
She works with the 9th- and 10th-grade students by hosting resume-building workshops, teaching networking skills and outlining what they need to do to prepare for college.
Her work with KIPP’s 11th and 12th graders mainly focuses on mentoring the students on writing admissions essays, the college admissions process and understanding life skills, such as how to establish good credit and how to file tax forms.
“I am still a part of KIPP wherever I go. I try to volunteer and give back to my KIPP community, whether it’s back home in Texas or here in Philadelphia,” says Fuentes, who also had an internship at the KIPP Foundation in Chicago.
Fuentes’ commitment to giving back through activism extends beyond her work with KIPP.
Fuentes is also an undocumented student and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiary.
DACA, launched by the Obama administration in 2012, is an immigration policy that allows undocumented people who entered the United States as minors to obtain deferred action on deportation and apply for a work permit on a two-year renewable basis.
Through Penn for Immigrant Rights, a social and political advocacy organization, Fuentes leverages her openness about her own undocumented status to help publicize and address the needs of undocumented students who fearfully remain quiet.
Penn for Immigrant Rights works to create open dialogue and dismantle misconceptions. Fuentes says sensitivity training has provided staff and faculty with statistical information about the undocumented population and knowledge about how a small word choice can make a big difference.
“No human being is ‘illegal.’ Being called illegal is hurtful in so many ways,” says Fuentes. “It’s important that everyone understand how the college application process works for undocumented students, particularly when it comes to financial aid.
“We are still in the process of building a community in which everyone feels supported academically and emotionally. We have plenty of work to do, but we are getting there,” Fuentes says. “In the long run, I hope our advocacy work for immigrant communities continues.”
As the vice chair for the Voto Latino chapter at Penn, Fuentes was a part of an initiative that registered more than 50 voters from the neighborhoods of North and South Philadelphia just before the deadline for the 2016 election.
Since her freshman year, Fuentes has also been a part of the Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center. She began a work-study position handling scheduling and administrative tasks in the fall of 2016.
After graduation, her plans are fluid and may involve applying to business school to earn a graduate degree. No matter what she does, Fuentes is determined to continue her advocacy work for immigrants and other undocumented students like herself.