Cristo Rey students step out and UP

| May 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

Jesuit school’s first graduates prepared to live out college dreams

Cristo Rey Students

Gabby DeLuna, left, and Nestor Ramirez are two members of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s first graduating class. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Nestor Ramirez and Gabby De Luna each have unique, yet similar stories, just like all of the 61 students who are among the first graduating class at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in south Minneapolis on June 11.

Both are from low-income Latino homes, which make up about 60 percent of the students, many of whom travel from across the Twin Cities to attend Cristo Rey.

Both are considered at-risk students who will become the first in their families to attend college this fall.

Ramirez lives in north Minneapolis with his father and a younger brother, but hasn’t seen his mother for about four years. However, he added, he hardly sees his father and brother because of their work and school schedules.

“My dad is hard working,” said Ramirez, who had just 15 minutes to talk after school before heading to his current job at the Showplace ICON Theatre in St. Louis Park. “People say ‘follow your dreams and do whatever is going to make you happy,’” he said. “I have a different opinion on that. I see my family troubled with debt.”

While he has been pushed by teachers and staff to get his work done, he said he also has received a lot of support and encouragement at school and at the companies where he has worked.

A working perspective

From his work at K-Mart, the theaters, Cub Foods and Best Buy, “I know how to handle customers really well, how to start conversations and how to keep going with conversations,” he said. “With the school’s internship program, I have worked at Wells Fargo, General Mills and currently M&I Bank. That has taught me a lot about computers and computer programming, data entry, filing, answering phones, how to be proper. I’ve gained a lot from them.”

Those experiences piqued his interest in accounting, which he sees as a stable career that he plans to study at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. It is a career, he said, that he can imagine himself in and that will provide a stable income.

“I want to be sure that I have money,” he said. “I think that Cristo Rey informs you of all the possibilities out there” for community colleges, four-year colleges and trade schools.

His face lit up with excitement about his own future, when he said that he just learned he would be receiving a full scholarship to Gustavus, which he could otherwise not afford to attend. Although he feels confident about the school work and being away from home, he does have one concern.

“My biggest fear is making new friends and new relationships,” he said. But Cristo Rey and its 78 partner corporations and nonprofits have given him the tools he needs to deal with that, he said, as he ended this interview with a firm, businesslike handshake.

From dreams to reality

De Luna said that attending Cristo Rey was a natural transition from nearby Risen Christ School, which she attended from third through eighth grade.

During her grade school days, De Luna dreamed of being a fashion designer, she said. During her sophomore year at Cristo Rey, she wanted to be a lawyer. Then she found her passion in science, which pulled her into another possible career.

“I want to go to St. Mary’s University in Winona and study dentistry,” said the outgoing teen, who claims to be “really shy.”

Although she has been accepted at St. Mary’s and at St. Benedict in St. Joseph and Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, she is waiting to hear more about financial aid before making a final decision.

“I never guessed I’d be accepted at St. Mary’s, St. Ben’s or Loras College . . . and to learn how to be in the corporate world,” she said.

Like Ramirez, De Luna chose to attend Cristo Rey, although her parents encouraged the choice.

“I really like that you get a lot of help from teachers,” she said, adding that her peers are friendly and more disciplined than what she has heard from friends about students in other schools.

Communication is one of the top skills that De Luna said she has gained from her studies and work experiences.

“Coming here helped me talk more and interact more with people,” she said. “Classes helped me with that.” And her work experiences taught her to be responsible and “stay on task.”

De Luna lives with both of her parents, who are members of Holy Rosary parish in Minneapolis.

“I do think that I’m really lucky,” she said. “I have always had support from both my parents.”

And because her Catholic faith also is important to her, she is glad that it is a part of the curriculum and overall environment at school.

A far-reaching mission

Nationwide, 24 Cristo Rey Jesuit High Schools are “dedicated to providing an education in the Jesuit tradition which integrates college preparatory academic and professional work environments, preparing [6,500] students [in 22 cities] from under-resourced families for success in college and life,” according to its promotional literature.

Students are connected in their freshman year with a sponsor corporation, said Rick Campion, development fund director in Minneapolis. In subsequent years, students attend a job fair and apply for jobs that interest them. Their wages go toward their tuition, along with a small amount paid by each family.

Campion began working at Cristo Rey in 2007 in a storefront across the street from the current building, which was built by Pat and the late Jim Ryan of Ryan Companies Inc., he said.

A member of St. Joseph in New Hope, Campion left his position of 12 years at Totino-Grace in Fridley because he believed in the Cristo Rey mission, he said. And he has been rewarded through his work for the school and with the students.

“My prayers have become more action,” he said.

Jesuit Father Timothy Manatt, Cristo Rey president, said the school model works because it appeals to both the political left and right. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” he said.

Today, many recent college graduates have a sense of social responsibility, he said. So, if the company they work for hires Cristo Rey students, that makes an impression, Father Manatt said.

Kris Donnelly

Kris Donnelly

Kris Donnelly, director of school relations at Youth Frontiers, said she has grown more impressed with the Cristo Rey model over the past year, as she has seen how the two students she supervises have grown and developed.

In fact, she and the rest of the staff are looking forward to having four students in the office next year.

Business gives and receives

The youth answer phones, work on the data base and help with special projects at the nonprofit retreat organization. Youth Frontiers leads 650 retreats each year at public and private schools around the country, which focus on character values such as kindness and respect.

Donnelly, a member of Our Lady of Peace in Minneapolis, said that the Cristo Rey students “are a daily reminder of what it is that we are already called to do.”

“I tend to put more thought into how I’m going to interact, how I’m going to talk about a project that we’re working on then I would have with the rest of my team on staff,” she said. That realization has prompted her to think about how she interacts with other people in the office as well.

“I have become a better person by working with them,” she said. “It’s made me a better manager, and I have a 13-year-old, so it’s made me a better mother.”

Hope for the future

Meg Brudney, executive director of the Hire-4-Ed Work-Study Program at the school, said the greatest reward of working at Cristo Rey is “watching these kids blossom” at school and work. Her job is finding jobs for the students.

“Hands down, this is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s fun to work with teenagers but especially these teenagers. They know they are being given an opportunity,” said Brudney, a member of Holy Name in Minneapolis who has been with Cristo Rey for one year.

When Cristo Rey students enter a work environment, they step up, she said.

“You see the self-confidence they have. They look you in the eye,” she said. Working in a corporate environment gives them a view of, and hope for the future, while exposing them to people who have been in college and in business. Those are opportunities that come more naturally to students in middle- to upper-income families, she added.

Cristo Rey also is a Spirit-filled environment, Brudney said. “To be in an environment where you can share your faith is enriching. It’s had a huge impact on my spirituality and faith life,” she said.

Those involved with Cristo Rey have high hopes for the future of the school. Their vision includes expansion from the current 268 students in the four-year school to a full house with 400 students — all connected to a corporate sponsor, all graduating and going on to college or other advanced education and then providing physical and financial support for the next generation of Cristo Rey students.

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Category: Graduation