Claudia Espinosa (far left) with her L.O.V.E. mentors (NYU students) and mentees (The Young Women's Leadership School students). (Courtesy Claudia Espinosa)

Claudia Espinosa (far left) with her L.O.V.E. mentors (NYU students) and mentees (The Young Women’s Leadership School students). (Courtesy Claudia Espinosa)

Latina Leaders: Empowering young Latinas with L.O.V.E. mentoring

Claudia Espinosa used to daydream of becoming an FBI agent when she was a teen in her native Cali, Colombia. At 20, she came to the U.S., by herself, to study forensic psychology at John Jay College in New York City in pursuit of that dream. However, 14 years and a few other degrees later, she finds herself on a new path — empowering other young Latinas.

Espinosa founded the L.O.V.E. mentoring program — the acronym for Latinas on the Verge of Excellence — only last year, but it has already won two awards. Through her program, she recruits female university students to support, guide, and be a role model to a young Latina (ages 14 through 17) for a period of one school year. One-on-one mentoring and group activities concentrate on personal empowerment, developing study skills, and preparation for college.

“Two and a half years ago, I worked for a suicide prevention program in Brooklyn to help young Latinas — that was my first exposure to the problems that Latinas face nationwide,” says Espinosa. “I learned not only about suicides, but issues like teen pregnancy.”

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2011 suicide attempts for Hispanic girls in grades 9 through 12 were 70 percent higher than for white girls in the same age group.

While studying for her masters in public administration at New York University after her completing her masters in forensic psychology, Espinosa thought there was a need for a program to help young Latinas.

“I started the L.O.V.E. mentoring program in the spring of 2012,” she says, explaining it took two years of hard work and a lot of collaborations. She set up a partnership with groups such as the Young Women’s Leadership Network. “In the fall, I’m going to start recruiting mentors from Columbia University.”

The curriculum was created for the program with a lot of guidance from professors at NYU and experts she found by asking around, and she learned to incorporate an organization through her degree is non-profit management.

“The whole group meets in the same room so it feels like a community,” says Espinosa, explaining there were 24 people in the same room last year. “Someone might come in and talk about self image. After that, there will be a one-on-one. Everybody gets to know each other because it feels like a small family.”

Mentors are from undergraduate, graduate and Phd programs from different universities and backgrounds.

“I get a lot of responses from Latina graduate students,” says Espinosa. “It’s pretty amazing to see that.”

Espinosa, 34, was also accepted into Clinton Global Initiative University for her involvement with the community. In return the organization pairs her with a mentor and guides her as she grows her program.

“It’s all about establishing the right connections,” says Espinosa, who is also grateful for the pro bono legal advice she was able to receive. “You can’t do something like this alone I learned…People are ready to jump in to help.”

“I started getting interested in human rights, women’s rights and then youth and education,” she says. “I started working for different non-profits…That’s life. My interests started to change and got more specific. I’m really passionate about what I do now.”

Espinosa also paid her way through school working as a personal trainer, and now she’s in the final process of becoming an American citizen.

“It hasn’t been easy, says Espinosa. “Sometimes life can be rough, but you fall and stand up and you continue. I want to convey that message to girls.”

She says that has been her fuel to keep going.

“I want to serve as many girls as we can in the right way — hopefully 200 next year, and eventually make the program bicoastal,” says Espinosa. ““I want to concentrate on the quality and grow slowly.  I really believe in that.”

“You can’t really change the entire world, but I hope to make an impact in my community.”

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