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Marvin Figueroa

2008-09 Secondary Education Graduate Fellow

After learning to speak English in an ESL program and attending a vocational high school where the graduation rate barely reached 50%, CHCI gave Marvin Figueroa the opportunity to gain a federal perspective on our nation’s most challenging issues and introduced him to leaders devoted to finding solutions.

Hometown: Bronx, New York

CHCI Program(s)/Year: Secondary Education Graduate Fellow 2010-2011

CHCI Program Placement(s): The White House, Office of Public Engagement & Office of Senator Mark Warner [D-VA]

Current Position: Healthcare and Education Policy Senior Advisor , Office of Sen. Mark Warner

Education: Vanderbilt University; Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Community Service & Volunteer Activities: Congressional Hispanic Staff Association

 

“Until the day that family background no longer influences who has access, and every person who has interest in working on the Hill can do so, CHCI programs are necessary as a point of entry for many Latinos who have talent but come from modest means.”

 

1. What motivated you to apply to the CHCI program(s), and why do you think they are important for Latino youth?

More or less since I entered public school, everything I have experienced has influenced me to seriously pursue a career in education. I have accumulated a diverse set of learning experiences, from the overcrowded public schools of the South Bronx to the affluence of a top-twenty university. I learned to speak English in an ESL program and attended a vocational high school where the graduation rate struggled to reach 50%.

I applied for CHCI because I wanted to make policy sense of the issues I faced. I wanted to know why my school didn’t get adequate funding or, to be honest, what “adequate” meant. I wanted to understand the politics of inequality – who wins, who loses, why the status quo was so difficult to confront – and the considerations that go into how decisions are made when addressing poverty. It’s CHCI that gave me the financial assistance as well as the mentorship that allowed me to explore those questions.

Programs like CHCI are necessary because until the day that family background no longer influences who has access, and every person who has interest in working on the Hill can do so, it is a point of entry for many of us who have talent but come from modest means. CHCI provides the support structure that continues to make Congress a little more diverse with every class that is allowed to lend their input to the greater question of what kind of country we want to live in.

2. What have you been doing since you finished the CHCI program(s)?

Following the fellowship program, I took a permanent position in the office of Senator Mark Warner [D-Virginia] as a Legislative Correspondent focused on health care and education. I have since been promoted to Legislative Assistant on workforce, education, and immigration.

In recent months I’ve also taken on the responsibility of outreaching to the growing Hispanic community in Virginia. This role allows me to create and coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between Senator Warner and a consituent group that has and will continue to contribute to the prosperity of the Commonwealth.

3. What impact did your CHCI experience have on your career and development as a leader?

The fellowship provided the opportunity to gain a federal perspective on how problems are framed, and surrounded me with thought leaders devoted to finding solutions to the most vexing issues. In the course of the program, I started to better understand what I didn’t know and the questions I needed to ask to make informed decisions. That self-awareness has served me well.

4. How do you continue to give back to the community?

I spend my spare time thinking about how we get more diverse voices to the table. These days, more often than not, I find myself being the only person of color in the room or the only person whose parent had to use public assistance to put food on the table, not because she wanted a hand out – she in fact worked 12 hour shifts as a home health aide – but because she needed help. I mention this not because I believe you should wear your experiences on your sleeve or that you have to live it to understand it, but I do believe that these experiences provide a unique perspective that is often missing at the highest levels.

As President of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association (CHSA), I have made it the organization’s mission to make congressional offices more like the constituents they represent. Through programming, members gain the insight and forge the relationships necessary to advance their careers on the Hill. There is a lot of work to be done. My hope is that what I do today makes a difference tomorrow.

5. Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years, and what do you still want to achieve?

CHCI asked me this question about four years ago, and unfortunately I still haven’t come up with a good response. What I can say is that I’ll continue to push for the change I wish to see in places like the Bronx, where I was raised. You don’t survive the situations I have been through without coming out of it feeling obligated to pay it forward.

I view my time in the United States Senate as another learning period. The discussions I am part of here expose me to how (and why) decisions are made. I am fortunate to work for a Senator that gives me the space to take risk, to learn, to lead. Five, ten, fifteen years from now, I am confident I will be a better advocate for my community: Someone realistic enough to know that problems that developed over decades won’t be addressed overnight, but committed enough to aspire to make the American Dream more accessible to all.

6. What advice would you give current and future CHCI participants?

Allow yourself to dream big.

I can still recall sitting in a packed auditorium on my first day at Grace Dodge Vocational High School in the South Bronx and hearing the dean of students say, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you will graduate, one of you will not.” Sadly, that statement turned out to be true for a lot of my classmates. What made the difference for me was that early on I had set big goals for myself. At that time I dreamed of becoming President of Honduras and no dean of students was going to shatter those ambitions. You can say that even as a kid, I didn’t buy into the notion that one’s environment defines the person, but instead it’s the individual who defines what’s possible. It’s a mentality I carry to this day.

My presidential ambitions have since faded. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped me from setting bigger, bolder goals. So I invite current and future CHCI participants to do the same: Dream. Create a blueprint. Chase that dream. Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from not so successful experiences. And keep on the pursuit.