The Downtrodden. The Underdogs. The Longshots.

By Kiley Kio, College of William & Mary 2020

Through my summer internship at the Dream Project, I learned that leaders are not necessarily the people with high paying salaries or impressive resumes. Leaders are our moms, our neighbors, our teachers. As an informed individual, I am compelled to believe that my education is a key to helping those less fortunate, and showing others that they can also be a positive force. I left this internship feeling inspired by the Dream Project students and this organization.

“It’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most receptive to change.”

One day I shared lunch with a student named Rodrigo. Rodrigo was 20, just like me, and lived in his own in an apartment in the city because his parents were unable to accompany him on his journey from Bolivia to the United States. He worked full time as a manager at a local fast food restaurant and completed classes at night to attain his GED. Speaking to him, I noticed he was uneasy with sharing his story. At first, slightly taken aback, I reflected and realized that I will never be in Rodrigo’s shoes and experience that level of vulnerability. I felt almost shameful that I live an infinitely more privileged life, a life that may never be in the cards for someone like Rodrigo. I get to go home to my family, my pets, my home-cooked meals, and after lunch Rodrigo would return home to the problems that most of us will never experience, all because he was born on the other side of a trivial line. It took strength for him to share his story with a complete stranger, and I admire that wholeheartedly. But it is because of the caring, family-like community that the Dream Project has built that he was able share these insecurities.

An Academy of unconventional leaders

During my internship, we were able to give out a record number of 95 scholarships all worth $1,500, a triumph made possible through the hard work and dedication of the board and staff. However, beyond these data points, I noticed the real success of the organization when completing one of my tasks as an intern. Every year, scholars write a letter to their scholarship donors. It was my job to edit these letters for grammatical mistakes. These letters spelled out who they were, where they are attending college, and what they want to do after graduation. The number of students who wanted to pursue a career in immigration law in hopes of giving back to the community that faced the same struggles and adversity that they endured shocked me. This is precisely what leadership means. The Dream Project is more than an organization that helps immigrant students pursue higher education; it is an academy that invests in the next generation of unconventional leaders. The downtrodden. The underdog. The longshots.

In a population where the political atmosphere deems you otherwise disposable, I thought it was beautiful that this community wanted to prove the rest of the world wrong. That same type of leadership can be seen in only the greatest that history has to offer – Jesus, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama. The palpable sense of community vibrating through the outstretched arms of the Dream Project allows them to be successful in empowering others to pursue higher education and advance despite adversity. From the dedicated staff and board, the accepting atmosphere, and the desire to give back to their community, the Dream Project has been triumphant in empowering students to not only go to college, but to rise to the occasion and become leaders within their own communities.

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Learn more about the Dream Project at dreamproject-va.org. Click here to make a donation today.