By Michaela Marcinic
Applying to college is a year away for Nicky Vazquez, but already he is focused on college and career, thanks to the Northfield TORCH program. TORCH stands for Tackling Obstacles, Raising College Hopes.
“I kind of want to be a mechanical engineer,” says Vazquez, a Northfield High School junior. “This upcoming year I’ll take the engineering classes Northfield provides.”
TORCH has seen its scope and influence evolve since its inception in 2005. A decade ago TORCH focused on helping Latino students. “At the start, TORCH pointed toward a gap, pointed toward a community not supported,” says Teddy Gelderman, co-coordinator of the TORCH high school program. “We know people go to college when they feel supported.”
- In 2001, just 36 percent of Northfield area Latino students graduated from high school
- In 2014, 96 percent of TORCH students graduated and 87 percent applied to college. (All were accepted.)
TORCH no longer is a program solely for Latino students; it welcomes all. Today TORCH aims to close the “achievement gap”—education-speak for how students of lower socio-economic status among all ethnic groups fall behind other students. TORCH has gone from serving 17 students to serving 513 students who may lack access to opportunities, time or resources needed for academic success. This explosive growth is a tribute to welcoming mentors, as well as program successes.
“Our primary role is to be an ally and an advocate for students,” says Kim Horner, who coordinates the TORCH high school program with Gelderman.” The most important part of my job is forming relationships with students so that you know their strengths but also where they struggle.”
Bolstered by TORCH, students begin to think big–beyond high school and even college–to careers they may want to pursue. Vazquez first encountered the field of engineering during a University of Minnesota engineering challenge during a high school class.
TORCH organizes career panels of community members, and those panels have had an impact on Vazquez: “Getting to hear from those people gave me a boost to push myself further.”
Another focus for is community involvement.
Once afraid to speak out, Vazquez began his community involvement in middle school as a representative on TORCH’s Youth Advisory Board. This year he serves on the Mayor’s Youth Council, where students receive briefings on the mayor’s projects and proposals and offer their perspective on community needs.
Vazquez hopes to create bridges between Northfield’s Latino communities and its majority population. Living side by side, residents are often separated by language and cultural barriers.
One hope of the TORCH coordinators is that TORCH alumni come back to Northfield after they have graduated from college to be leaders and role models in the community. With the program now in its eleventh year, many alumni are doing just that. TORCH alumni now work in the schools, in local banks, and at the colleges.
Gelderman says, “Through community involvement, students gain a voice and are inspired to give back to a community that has helped them achieve their goals.”
— Michaela Marcinic is a St. Olaf College senior who is interning with the Northfield Area United Way.