18-01-26 Nosotros United_2@

Seniors Grace Evans, standing, left, and Marisol Marquez, kneeling, left, founded Nosotros United last fall to “promote the blending of cultures” at Wood River High School. Michel Sewell, kneeling, right, is the club’s advisor.

On a recent Friday, the streets around Wood River High School were glazed over with the first real snow—then sleet, then freezing rain—of the new year. Buses (late) skated through their rounds and delivered students (tardy) to their first-period classes.

A half hour before that early bell, some 15 students sat inside Room A212 to hear seniors Marisol Marquez and Grace Evans announce the agenda for the weekly meeting of Nosotros United.

The club, inaugurated in September, is dedicated to bringing together white and Latino students—both in the halls of the high school, where cliques hew closely to color and culture, and in its classrooms, where the so-called “achievement gap” dogs tests scores and academic pursuits of Wood River’s Hispanic students.

Or, as the club’s founders tell its 40-plus members, “to promote the blending of cultures and ambitious dreams for all.”

Friday morning, Marquez and Evans repeated the motto in the cadence of a mantra. In the four months since the club’s founding, it has begun to approach one.

Eleven years ago, when they met as first-graders starting the Dual Immersion program at Alturas Elementary School, none of that needed to be said. They were just friends, and they have been since. This year, both will graduate from the program—Evans being one of the few white students to see it through—and both hope to go off to college in the fall.

But when they got to Wood River High School, where 42 percent of the students are Latino, such friendships seemed rare.

“As soon as you walk into the school, you’d see who was hanging out with who,” Marquez said. “People felt isolated here. There wasn’t a real support system. And they came to me for help.”

Then, a week into the school year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would repeal Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors to remain in the country—and the lines around Wood River’s cultural divide sharpened.

“For like half the students here, it was some unfortunate thing they heard on the news,” Evans remembers. “They didn’t realize how it touches our community—how it effects all of us.”

Earlier that summer, Marquez attended the Hispanic Youth Symposium in Caldwell, where she learned about support networks in place at other schools across Idaho. Other students knew she’d been as well. And, as Marquez said, “They asked me to do something.” They looked to her to lead.

So, she did: In September, she went into classrooms to talk about the decision, and the sweeping impact it could have across the school.

Still, it didn’t seem like enough.

That’s when Marquez got in touch with Michel Sewell, who facilitates the district’s GATE program for “gifted and talented” students, and runs GRIT, a similar initiative tailored toward would-be first-generation high school graduates and college students.

Marquez is a GRIT student—if things go to plan, she’ll be the first in her family to do both.

“Marisol was always a little shy, but she came back from Caldwell fired-up,” Sewell said. “It was huge for her, seeing people from similar backgrounds making it, and making it big. When school started, she saw so many Hispanic students who wanted to be more than what they were told they could be. They were ambitious—they had big dreams. But they were nervous about stepping into new challenges, and they didn’t want to do it alone.

“She came to me. She wanted to form a group to cultivate it.”

With Sewell’s encouragement, Marquez decided to build up the club that would become Nosotros United. And she reached out to Evans to help.

They didn’t need to look far for their model. Together, they’d been living it for 11 years.

What started as a weekly study group quickly grew, in numbers and in scope.

“They asked each other: ‘Why do people separate themselves?’” said Sewell, who is now the club’s faculty advisor. “Even well-intentioned people, people who want to build bridges, naturally flock to what they know.

“These kids, they’re not immune to that. But they’re open, they’re curious. They’re tired of feeling isolated. They know what it’s like to be separated out, and they’re kind of sick of it.”

Nosotros United had a float in the Homecoming Parade. Its members sold Mexican pan dulce (“sweet bread”) at school events. On Thursday, they co-hosted a forum with the Immigration Alliance of Idaho to highlight issues facing the valley Latino community. And last Sunday, Marisol Marquez addressed the crowd at the Ketchum Women’s March—in English and in Spanish.

In the spring, the club is working to organize Dia de los Niños, a children’s carnival that Evans and Marquez remember from their childhood at Alturas. Over the years, it has fallen by the wayside. They hope to bring it back—as a fundraiser, to finance Nosotros United’s ultimate goal: A scholarship fund for members to use after graduation.

That Friday, they accepted its first donation—$1,000 for each of the next five years, courtesy of an anonymous donor.

“We all want to continue our education. We all want to go to college,” Evans said. “Big picture, we’re all just looking for the same things.”

“If we’ve shown people that,” Marquez added, “We’re already living up to our name.”

Us, united.

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