Juan Carlos (“JC”) Salinas ’03 M.F.A. knew little about life outside of Texas when his advisor, Melba Martinez, at the University of Texas-Austin where he studied theater, suggested he apply to the Yale School of Drama. He’d grown up in the small, low-income, largely Mexican-American community of Rio Grande City, Texas, where even the top-performing kids, Salinas says, were expected to go to schools in-state.
“I had heard of Yale,” says Salinas, although he admits he was fuzzy on the details.
Martinez recommended applying to Yale’s theater management program, and Salinas was accepted. As a 21-year-old graduate student, he connected more readily with Yale’s undergraduate community and was soon auditing classes, including Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare class, and history seminars with Stephen Pitti and Jonathan Holloway. “I was fully immersed in the undergrad culture,” Salinas says, “I often think what could have been if I had gone to Yale as an undergrad.”
Now a college readiness program Salinas runs through the nonprofit La Unidad Latina Foundation, Y Tu Tambien, is making that dream a reality for kids from low-income and immigrant families in and around New York City. He said he wanted the experiences he’d valued so much at Yale to be available to other kids who lack the resources and support in their homes and high schools. Y Tu Tambien offers monthly workshops that help students tell their story in college essays, prepare them for admission interviews, navigate financial aid requirements, and get a taste of life on campus through college visits. The program has alumni and student support from across the Ivy League, with a leading role played by Yale and Yale alumni.
“These schools change your life forever,” Salinas says. “I want other students to know if they work hard they can go to Yale, and Yale is rooting for you.”
Sharing the Yale experience
Salinas says he’s “Yale’s number-one cheerleader for these students” in large part because he found such a supportive community on campus, particularly through the LGBTQ Student Cooperative and La Casa, Yale’s Latino Cultural Center. “My first semester was a culture shock,” Salinas says. “I went from a Latino-majority place to one of just six Latino students at School of Drama. When I found La Casa, I never left.”
After graduating, Salinas became the head of the Tri State Area chapter of the Yale Latino Alumni Association. By day, he’s the director of education at the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning in Queens, New York, but Y Tu Tambien is his labor of love, he says.
When Y Tu Tambien launched eight years ago as a Yale Day of Service project, Salinas says they drew 10-15 kids to their workshops. Now, 140 kids participate, and the program boasts an Impressive track record. According to Salinas, some 70%-80% of students who participate are accepted into an Ivy League or comparable school.
One of the most important aspects of the program, Salinas says, is that the students they help become part of a community — acting as a sounding board for one another on campus, helping to guide new recruits, and receiving support on additional academic and career steps once they graduate.
There are 15 Y Tu Tambien students currently at Yale, he says, and over 60 Yale alumni who’ve participated in their program and lent their expertise. “Our college preparation experience is representative of the Yale student body at large,” Salinas says.
Angela Lin ’20 B.S. first saw a sign for an Y Tu Tambien workshop at Stuyvesant High School in New York City where she was a student. Her parents are immigrants from southern China living in Brooklyn who had not completed high school, and she says she had little in the way of personal guidance from the overwhelmed counselors at her school. The first workshop she attended took place at a nearby Whole Foods, and Lin says, “They gave you ideas about what kinds of essays were expected on the application, and how to make yourself stand out. And they were really helpful in navigating financial aid forms and doing mock interviews.” Lin is majoring in chemistry at Yale, published a paper last year, and is part of a dance group and the Women’s Leadership Initiative on campus. She’s also finding time during the upcoming winter break to participate in editing sessions for high school students through Y Tu Tambien in the final crunch before January application deadlines. She says the program has remained an important resource she can turn to. “JC is a mentor to me, but really he’s a great friend,” Lin says. “He’s always checking up on me.”
Shumayl Syed ’19 B.A. agrees that Salinas has been an important guide even after he completed the program and was accepted to Yale. “JC made himself very open to students,” Syed says, adding that Salinas even provided at letter of recommendation for him to attend medical school at Icahn School of Medicine in New York. Syed attended Brooklyn Tech High School and says with a graduating class of 1,400, there just wasn’t an opportunity for personal guidance. He says Y Tu Tambien provided a support structure that has come to feel like a family. “Whatever a person comes with, they find their voice,” he says.