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Good Citizenship? He’s Aced That Test

November 26, 2018

Julian Viviescas, a Lowell High School senior, stands in front of articles that he and others wrote in Jessica Lander s classes. Viviescas, an immigrant from Colombia, was awarded a $20,000 scholarship from consulting firm ALKU and the Mass. Mentoring Partnership. SUN/ELIZABETH DOBBINS

LOWELL -- It was 3 1/2 years ago that Julian Viviescas left Colombia and started high school in Lowell.

He found himself without a strong community in a country where he only knew the basics of the language.

So he built his own community -- one that centered on civic engagement.

“If I had a community back in Colombia, when I came here I felt like I didn’t have it,” he said. “But I created that community. I helped that community grow. I work with that community to become more engaged.”

For his service and overcoming challenges, Viviescas was awarded a $20,000 scholarship by the Mass. Mentoring Partnership and the consulting company ALKU.

The Lowell High School senior doesn’t know what college he wants to attend yet, but said the scholarship will help pay the bills as he studies journalism and photography. He said he is also considering a major in political science.

Viviescas moved to Lowell with his father in April 2015, to seek better education opportunities.

His first year at Lowell High was challenging as he worked to learn English, getting help from teachers and Google Translate.

“When you come here you really don’t understand. You’re kind of afraid to speak, because some people might make fun of you,” he said. “But that was not the case, because I was just making those things up in my mind.”

As teachers and others helped, English got easier and easier, he said.

His sophomore year he enrolled in an American history class with social studies and English language learner teacher Jessica Lander.

“I was really struck by how Julian worked particularly hard,” Lander said.

As part of the class, Viviescas worked with other students on a project through Generation Citizen to organize a gun buy-back. The drive received 39 guns, according to Viviescas.

He focused on getting the word out about the project -- part of an effort to make their community safer -- by writing a letter published in the Sun and organizing announcements through other news outlets.

After the project he joined a 14-person statewide student leadership board for Generation Citizen.

Lander also encouraged him to participate in a summer workshop hosted by the New England High School Journalism Collaborative. Viviescas worked with others in the program to create a newspaper. He co-wrote a story about sanctuary cities.

“I just kept writing a lot,” he said.

Then, he turned his attention to the since-passed bill to improve civics education in the state.

He spoke with representatives at the State House urging them to support the bill and followed up with a personal essay published by WBUR on the impact of his own civics education.

“Many people wonder how they can address affecting their communities,” Viviescas wrote in his piece on WBUR. “I was lucky. In a classroom at my high school, I learned how to create real community change.”

Last summer, Viviescas participated in a program for teachers leading eighth-grade civics courses. He was one of nine students across the state chosen by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to speak to the teachers.

He also went to Miami last summer to speak as part of a panel to superintendents about civics and his experiences.

″(He went from) being a leader in a class to being a leader in trying to advocate for change in our community to a leader advocating for change in our state,” said Lander. “All the more incredible, because he is an immigrant and really embracing his new community.”

Viviescas said Lander has pushed him to work hard and become a better student.

“She sees the potential of a person,” he said.

Lander told Viviescas about the scholarship opportunity through Mass Mentoring Partnership, an organization dedicated to expanding and empowering youth-adult relationships.

They thought it would be a “reach,” but Viviescas was selected from over 100 applicants for the award.

“Julian’s story embodies the type of supportive relationship that we are looking to ensure that every young person has access to in Massachusetts,” said Lily Mendez, president and CEO of Mass Mentoring Partnership.

Viviescas will be presented the award on Nov. 28 in Boston at the annual Cheers to Mentoring event.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

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