In June, Valley Stream native and 2016 Central High School graduate Nataly Aguirre resolved to take on the thorny issue of systemic racism in America.
Amid a historic conversation about race after the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd, and recalling studies discussed in her behavioral health classes at Boston University, which showed better outcomes among patients of color treated by doctors who look like them rather than white doctors, Aguirre, 22, was aware of how under-representation by people of color in certain professions can lead to material harm, and continue racism’s vicious cycle.
Her solution, the Valley Stream Program for Education Equity and Resources, or PEER, seeks to break that cycle, targeting the high school-to-college-to-career pipeline by establishing a tutoring and mentorship program aimed at students of color or those from lower-income families. The goal, she said, is to give students the knowledge that they need to pursue a career path. She graduated from Boston University this year and currently works as a health coach.
“We don’t just want them to go to college,” Aguirre said. “We want them to go to college to completion.”
According to the latest job pattern figures from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2018, white men and women working as professionals nationwide outnumbered Black and Latino men and women nine to one. The disparity is even more pronounced at the executive and senior management level, where the figure is 22 to one. PEER seeks to address this inequity by intervening at the high school level.
“We’re trying to address educational disparities when it comes to the kinds of resources such as counseling and mentorships that are more readily available to higher-income and white families,” Aguirre said. And while the organization is primarily geared toward lower-income or students of color, “we’re not going to turn anyone away,” she said.
PEER pairs high school students with mentors, typically Valley Stream alumni, working in the careers of their choice. They meet in one-on-one sessions, and the mentor provides tips on best practices to guide them in their next steps. The program also offers writing tutors to help students with college application essays, resumes and cover letters, as well as free workshops on general career topics such as applying to college and choosing majors. The organization’s first workshop is scheduled for Nov. 7, and will focus on the college application process.
So far, more than 50 Valley Stream alumni have signed on to become mentors and tutors. There is a fee for the mentorship, which provides a stipend for the mentor. Aguirre said she wants PEER to work as a low-cost alternative to more expensive programs.
“We’re trying to find prices that are affordable to students,” she said. “At the same time, every dollar a student sends go directly to the mentor.”
Aguirre said she chose Valley Stream as the locus of her program because of its diverse student population and robust high school infrastructure. By leveraging their familiarity with the schools, mentors point students to available resources.
According to New York State Education Department records, students of color comprise more then 80 percent of the Valley Stream high school student body.
“We knew that Valley Stream was a great space to start,” Aguirre said. “We have great high schools. The foundation is there, and we wanted to build off of that.”
With the organization just getting started, however, there are challenges ahead. PEER co-founder and 2015 H. Frank Carey High School graduate Olivia DiMeglio said that beyond logistical challenges, a chief concern is getting the word out to students who might be interested.
Without official support from the Central High School District Board of Education, which DiMeglio, 23, said declined this summer to join in the effort, citing the coronavirus pandemic, “recruiting students is going to be our concern,” she said.
She said she hopes that between social media, fliers they plan to place throughout the neighborhood and word of mouth, more students will sign up as the school year gets under way.
Aguirre and DiMeglio met while working part-time in high school at the Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices in Franklin Square, and DiMeglio said Aguirre approached her with the idea for PEER in early June, thinking she might be interested in helping to run such an organization. DiMeglio graduated from Baruch College in 2019 with a degree in corporate communication.
“She told me about this vision she had,” DiMeglio recalled. “She told me she needed a partner and needed help.”
Within a week, they were brainstorming ideas to make PEER a reality.
“I remember how clueless I was when I was applying to colleges, and picking a career path was very tough for me when I was finishing off high school,” she said. “I wanted to guide high school students who might also experience that same confusion.”
PEER is also raising funds for a scholarship, currently through a GoFundMe campaign, which Aguirre and DiMeglio plan to give to one Valley Stream, Elmont or Franklin Square student each year.
With heightened awareness of racial inequalities in the country, DiMeglio said she thought PEER might be a way effect tangible change. “Instead of just talk,” she said, “we wanted to roll up our sleeves and take action.”