Juana Granados graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2013. She is an Urban Studies major at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of Penn First and First Families, student organizations intended to support first-generation college students. We interviewed Juana about her leadership at Penn and her experiences at YES Prep.
Tell us about Penn First.
Penn First is the first group at Penn to provide a community for first-generation and low-income students; it gives a voice to a demographic that has been largely silent for most of the university’s history. Penn has made recent attempts to increase inclusivity and diversity in the student body, but because of the school’s elitist culture, first-generation and low-income students still find themselves experiencing isolation and general discomfort. In response, we formed a community to provide each other with mutual support, to advocate for more resources and to encourage members to take pride in their identity.
What is First Families?
First Families is the mentoring program we established to give students in the group additional support. Students who participate are placed in families, each of which is made up of 4 to 6 students (freshmen and upperclassmen). It’s essentially like the “Families” YES Prep Southeast had when I attended, but on a more intimate scale. The idea behind it was to introduce freshmen to upperclassmen that have experienced and surpassed the struggles the freshmen will encounter, so that they have someone they can lean on for support. Recently, we decided to add alumni mentors to the families, so now each group has ‘grandparents’ as well.
What did you personally experience your first few years at Penn that made you want to found an organization like Penn First?
My first semester at Penn was rough. I struggled academically, experienced homesickness and I never felt like I was a part of my freshman hall, since most of my hall mates were wealthy and from elite New York prep schools. There were moments when I questioned whether I even had the intelligence or talent to attend my university. Penn First is my attempt to ensure that other students don’t experience what I felt when I first walked on campus. Once you acclimate to the environment, Penn is an incredible university and I want others to experience that side of Penn early on.
How did you start Penn First and gain support?
In the Spring of 2015, several of us (first-generation and low-income students) got together to speak about the challenges that we had faced during our first years in school, and we realized there was a need for a safe community where other students like us could share their experiences or receive support. Gaining support for the group was fairly easy for us, because the university has a large number of staff who are dedicated to improving the diversity in the student body, and students were excited for the group from the start; even alumni were quick to reach out when they got word of the group. The only issues that we faced early on was developing an appropriate structure for the group. We wanted it to be structured in a way that would ensure it would continue to grow after the founders graduated, without being too stringent or exclusive.
What is your role in the organization and program now? How many members and participants are there?
I’m currently the mentorship co-chair, which means I work with a fellow member to watch over the mentorship program. My responsibilities extend beyond that, however, because the organization is always on the move; as a result, I sometimes advocate for resources before administrators, work with the alumni network and generally pitch in with any other work that needs to be done. This is only Penn First’s second semester of existence, but we already have close to 200 active members and a growing alumni group.
What is your biggest takeaway from your years at YES Prep?
Throughout my years at YES, I realized that one of the best ways to lead is by example; you can’t expect others to do something if you don’t do it yourself first. As a result, I always try to lead by example, rolling up my sleeves first before expecting others to follow suit. No matter what the context, whether it’s been tutoring in West Philadelphia elementary schools, acting as an eco-rep for college house (which meant I encouraged my peers to pick up “greener’ life habits) or being a house manager at my dorm, I’ve always made sure to lead in a way that inspires action.
What are your goals/plans for life after graduation from Penn?
After graduation I would like to begin working in real estate development. I’d love to be able to develop affordable housing, because that would give me the chance to serve my community and work in the industry I’m passionate about. Besides that, I see myself returning to Houston, earning a Masters’ degree in City Planning, and volunteering frequently for the Penn Alumni Association.