Like many Southern Californians, Romy Greenwald’s first language was Spanish. Romy was born in the United States, but her grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Mexico and Cuba, and her parents spoke Spanish to her.
So it was no surprise when Romy began at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara that she quickly became friends with many fellow Spanish-speaking students.
Unlike Romy, however, who is fully bilingual, many of her friends were relatively recent immigrants who struggled with integrating into the school’s English-speaking environment.
“I was the only student they knew outside of their English learning program who spoke English,” recalled Romy, now 18. “It’s very isolating to be in that situation because they really want to learn English and be a part of the school. But sometimes they were surrounded by immigrants and Spanish speakers all day, which can be comfortable but ultimately wasn’t helpful in terms of real integration, meeting other kids and learning the language.”
Romy wanted to help bridge this divide, so she created a program for recent immigrants and native English speakers studying Spanish to help one another learn the other’s mother tongue. This model not only helped with language skills, but also fostered social integration and a sense of leadership and pride among the students, especially the recent immigrants.
Several years later, the program, called MiSendero, Spanish for “my path,” now has a presence in multiple schools in California and Florida. (California schools have an estimated 1.1 million English language learners — about 20% of the nationwide total.)
Recently, Romy was recognized for her work with a 2023 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, given annually by the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation to recognize socially committed young leaders whose dedication to volunteerism exemplifies the spirit of tikkun olam — Hebrew for repairing the world. The award is given to 15 teenagers every year and comes with a $36,000 prize.
“I’m so excited to have gotten this award from the Diller Foundation, and I am super grateful to all the amazing people who made it possible,” Romy said. “What started as a way to help some of my friends learning English participate in activities at my school has turned into a much bigger dream of creating pathways for immigrant student integration and success across the country.”
Looking back at what fueled her success, Romy says she found inspiration in her own family. Her mother was born in America but did not speak English before entering school. She was put into the “English learner” program in kindergarten and gained fluency by the time she completed elementary school.
Yet other immigrants, especially recent arrivals, find that integrating linguistically, culturally and socially is almost beyond their reach.
“They get put into these programs once they arrive, and then they never meet anyone else outside the program,” Romy said of the English-learning tracks. “It can be a social bubble.”
MiSendero takes immigrants out of that bubble and turns them into the leaders, Romy noted. Instead of being English learners, they become teachers, tutoring the native English speakers in Spanish. The students meet in weekly clubs where they can do homework together, or just practice conversation.
Once this setup got underway at Romy’s school, teachers and administrators quickly saw it shifted perceptions, relationships, and leadership roles — while raising students’ grades in a variety of subject areas. Administrators enthusiastically supported the program, and count tutoring time in MiSendero toward community service hours.
Over time, the program has grown. A website offers training materials and provides participants with workshops and support. During COVID, MiSendero pivoted to an online model and began matching pairs of students based on shared interests, such as art or music. When COVID restrictions eased and the students eventually met, they would go to after-school art or music clubs together.
Romy recently graduated high school, but the five schools that adopted MiSendero have made the program a permanent part of the school day, bringing new students into leadership roles.
For Romy, supporting Spanish-speaking students goes hand in hand with her Jewish passions. She ran the Jewish club at her high school, is a proud member of her local Reform temple and spent part of high school in Israel, where she has close relatives.
When Romy starts at Duke University this fall as an incoming freshman, she plans to become active in the local Hillel chapter. As for the award money from the Helen Diller Family Foundation, Romy said, she plans to use that to further her own education.
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, which celebrate tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” Each year, the Helen Diller Family Foundation recognizes up to 15 extraordinary Jewish teenagers from across the United States with an award of $36,000 each to honor their initiatives to help change the world. Nominate a young leader today or teens can apply directly by January 5, 2024. This story was produced by JTA's native content team.More from Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards