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The girl you wish your son would date: a poster child of self-motivation, self-discipline, and dedication, Elisa Perez, makes witer David Liss giddy with a catalog of achievements and extracurricular activities.

Elisa Perez is one of those people who makes you feel kind of sluggish, and at times a tiny bit inadequate. Despite this unfortunate state of affairs, you can't help but admire the Georgetown University sophomore, who is majoring in government with a minor in Spanish, as she deftly leaps off the learning curve.

Perez is one of 20 Latina college students selected by the National Hispana Leadership Institute to participate in their youth leadership program, Latinas Learning to Lead Institute, in Washington, DC. She was chosen from 270 applicants to take part in this highly selective one-week program that provides students with the opportunity to attend sessions on leadership training, cross-cultural communication, and youth entrepreneurship. As part of this program, Perez attended briefings at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and met with Latina leaders from the government and business sectors.

Articulate and self-assured, Perez is in the early stages of what can only be described as a journey; after graduation she hopes to bring her expertise to her community. Her objective is to return to her tough neighborhood in El Monte, East Los Angeles, and to head a not-for-profit organization geared towards providing education opportunities to the disadvantaged. Perez asserts, "I'm from El Monte, and if there is something that you can possibly give to others, it's important to give back. They need me and I need them."

El Monte was a far from ideal setting for Perez. The reality of gangs, drugs, and violence is one that many of her peers at Georgetown have never had to face up to or overcome. She affirms, "Many people I grew up with didn't get out. Many ended up pregnant or in a gang."

Perez feels that her background has distinguished her from many of her peers at school. "Most of the other students never had to struggle for anything," she states. "They never had to ask or work for many of the things that they take for granted; most took it for granted that they would go to college. There was a value on education."

"It takes a village to raise a child" rings true to Perez. Every village has its chief, and her proverbial chief was Jim Sullivan, director of Upward Bound at Harvey Mudd College. Sullivan enabled her to understand the importance of education and helped her get into college.

When she applied to college out of state her mother told her, "You are not leaving." Elisa explains, "If Jim Sullivan hadn't come to my parents' house to get their approval for me to leave home and to go to school, I wouldn't be at Georgetown today."

The Department of Education sponsors Upward Bound in partnership with select universities in order to help students who lack tire resources to go to college. The program provides students with academic instruction and additional services such as counseling and assisting with college entrance and financial aid applications. Elisa emphasizes, "We learned about everything, from what the SAT is to how to study for it and why you need to take it in the first place."

Community activities together with her work--study at the Center for Minority Educational Affairs at Georgetown--add up to 50 hours a week before Perez even gets down to studying for classes; this means a lot of late nights and early mornings. She opens books at odd times and studies wherever and whenever she gets the chance.

Perez is also a member of Alpha Phi Omega, the only recognized service fraternity at Georgetown. She helps out at rehabilitation centers, women's shelters, convalescent homes, and children's centers. She helps build houses and make repairs to others. She also finds time to be an active board member of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano De Aztlan of Georgetown, a Washington-based program promoting education in the Latino community. By working directly with the Latino population through the Movimiento, Perez is able to tutor students and simultaneously fulfill her need for a support network--a sense of familia--that has been missing since she left home. She explains, "It's tough being away from home. I miss my family and my close friends very much. There are so few Mexican things here." Perez is only able to go back home once a year at Christmas. Her family has never come to Washington and probably never will.

As a mentor within the organization Movimiento, Perez is coming closer to becoming the chief of her village, "I know that I can never give up on the students that I tutor and work with. If I were to give up on them--if I think for a minute that they are lost--that would make my life pointless. If people had thought that I was a lost cause, I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't be a student at Georgetown. The most at-risk students will always need a community of volunteers to influence them positively, to believe in them, and to help them succeed."

She adds, "It's hard to be away from my home and my family, but I'm doing this for the people back home. I want to show them that you can do it. You can better your life and make something of yourself."
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Title Annotation:Leader of the Future
Author:Liss, David
Publication:Latino Leaders
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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