A University-Community Partnership to Help Latinx Immigrant Youth Thrive

A Grand Challenges Grant Q&A with Sophia Rodriguez
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Funded by a Grand Challenges Team Project Grant from the University of Maryland, Encuentros: A University-Community Partnership to Mitigate the Mental Health Crisis for Latino Immigrant Youth addresses mental health issues among low-income Latinx immigrant youth in Maryland to increase their sense of well-being, community and belonging.

Encuentros is one of 11 projects involving College of Education faculty that were funded by Grand Challenges Grants earlier this year. In all, the university awarded more than $30 million to 50 projects addressing pressing societal issues, including educational disparities, social injustice,  climate change, global health and threats to democracy. The Grand Challenges Grants Program is the largest and most comprehensive program of its type in the university’s history.

Sophia Rodriguez, associate professor in the College of Education, is one of three principal investigators leading the community-driven Encuentros project. She and her fellow principal investigators, Amy Lewin and Kevin Roy of UMD’s School of Public Health, work in partnership with Identity, a local youth development organization that primarily serves Latinx immigrant youth and families in Montgomery County.

Rodriguez shares how her research on immigrant youth’s sense of well-being, as well as expertise from her UMD colleagues and community partners, is shaping this project to help youth thrive.

Sophia Rodriguez

What are some mental health issues facing youth from low-income Latinx immigrant communities in Maryland?

Latino immigrant youth in Maryland, and youth across the country, are facing a mental health crisis. In my own research, I’ve studied how trusting and supportive relationships with adults can help build youth’s sense of belonging. When those relationships are nonexistent or limited, such as during the pandemic, kids can feel isolated, lonely, depressed and anxious. 

Also, many local Latino immigrant youth are newcomers, who recently arrived in the United States. Sometimes they come with family members, sometimes they don’t. Maryland is the fifth largest receiving context for newcomer, unaccompanied and undocumented youth. They may have depression, anxiety and fear around immigration issues, including fear of deportation. A lot of them experienced trauma during their immigration or migration journeys. These traumatizing experiences can have ripple effects that lead to other mental health issues, increased health risks and unequal access to resources.

How do you hope to increase youth’s well-being and sense of belonging through Encuentros?

Encuentros focuses on healing the community from within. It allows youth’s mental health needs to be addressed from the ground up through non-clinical emotional support groups led by trained community members. Participants can discuss challenges they face and develop strategies for managing stress, sadness and anxiety. 

We're doing focus groups with youth to center their voices and experiences. We want to truly understand what they're feeling and experiencing so we can tailor supports to their needs. 

What knowledge and expertise do you and your partners bring to the project?

The partners on this project have vast interdisciplinary knowledge and expertise–both from the academic side, at UMD’s School of Public Health and College of Education, and the practitioner side, from our community partner, Identity. We all share values around improving outcomes and access and reducing inequality for Latino immigrant families, even though we look at these topics from different lenses.

I’m a scholar in immigration issues related to education and youth. I also study the ways community-based organizations, schools and school districts partner to serve immigrant families and youth. My colleagues in public health have expertise in psychology, social policy, and family and community issues.

Identity has been working in the community for 25 years, doing advocacy work and programming for Latino families. They bring true community-level knowledge and a deep commitment to improving social, academic, mental health and emotional outcomes for Latino immigrant families. They know the families and the community and are attuned to the issues they’re facing. 

The Grand Challenges project will build on the great work Identity is already doing in the community and will help them evaluate it, improve it and scale it up. They will be able to share their model with other school districts and organizations around the country.

Why does this issue matter to you personally?

I'm the child of an immigrant. My father was a Cuban refugee. At my first teaching job in New York City Public Schools, I taught mostly Latino, Black and Brown students and immigrant students. That sparked my interest in educational inequalities that immigrant youth face in our public school systems. Later, when I taught English as a Second Language in Chicago, all my students were newcomers. Many came to this country with just the clothes on their backs and didn’t have strong family or community support. As a public school teacher, and later as an instructional coach and in my scholarly work, I became invested in understanding the lived experiences, activism and social emotional needs of immigrant youth, particularly newcomers.