When Cesar Osvaldo Mendez Portillo ’23 walks into Risen Christ Catholic School, there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s beloved by its students.
For days, young voices have been heard asking, “Where’s Cesar?”
Now that he’s finally returned, their eyes light up and smiles fill the room.
The University of St. Thomas senior began volunteering three years ago at the Minneapolis dual immersion school – students learn lessons in both English and Spanish. Today, he joins a familiar pod of fifth graders in the corner of Maestra Angelina Aliendres’ classroom.
For Mendez Portillo the immediate task at hand is simple: Keep these energetic 11- and 12-year-olds focused on their social studies lesson as the clock ticks down to recess. But the bigger picture here is much more involved.
“We’re building future Tommies for sure,” Mendez Portillo said, a business administration and marketing management double major.
Mendez Portillo is one of about a dozen Latino St. Thomas students, many of them bilingual, who volunteer weekly at Risen Christ. Once inside the classroom they work with students on everything from math to writing – switching from English to Spanish as necessary.
In his pod, Mendez Portillo works with three students who recently immigrated to Minnesota and are learning English for the first time. It’s a life experience that many of the students at Risen Christ share, and feels very familiar to this Tommie, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador when he was 17.
“I have that connection with them. I know that struggle – of navigating a new system,” Mendez Portillo said. “I can apply what I did when I was learning the language and teach them how to learn."
Across the room today, several other Tommies are volunteering in Aliendres’ classroom. No matter the subject, these college students know that the most important lessons transcend language – that their work here is helping instill confidence in a new generation of Latinos as they find their place in the world.
Dionicio Saldana-Rosas ’23, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, is leading his pod through a set of discussion questions on European explorers.
“Yes, we’re helping out in the classroom, but we’re also getting to be a role model for them,” Saldana-Rosas said. “We are helping show that college is possible for them, and while college isn’t the only way to be successful, it should be one of their options.”
Saldana-Rosas began volunteering at Risen Christ during the first months of the pandemic. The business major and Catholic Studies minor said he was drawn to the school’s Catholic mission and strong sense of community. It was a natural fit – even if he had to start his time volunteering over Zoom.
“During the pandemic they needed help, so I reached out to see what I could do,” Saldana-Rosas said. “Thankfully now, it’s so much better in person. You’re able to interact more with the students, but either way it helps them to learn a lot more.”
Page Scholars create personal bonds
Saldana-Rosas’ time at Risen Christ fulfills a volunteer commitment he’s made as a Page Scholar. In fact, all of the Tommies who volunteer here are Page Scholars. The scholarship program from the Page Education Foundation awards grants to students of color who graduate from Minnesota high schools and attend Minnesota postsecondary institutions. In exchange for the grant, scholars are asked to complete annual service projects with kids.
Saldana-Rosas enjoyed his time at Risen Christ so much, he quickly started encouraging his fellow Tommies and Page Scholars to join.
“The connection that the St. Thomas students find with our own students is immediate,” said Regina Mancilla, director of community engagement at Risen Christ. “And it’s no wonder why. They can relate to their life experiences. They speak the language, many of their parents are immigrants as well. They create a personal bond.”
Mancilla has placed St. Thomas students into volunteer positions across the school. No matter where they land, their personal connection to the Latino community proves invaluable.
“They know that there’s a richness here, that there’s so much that we need to treasure and develop here,” Mancilla said. “When they show up in the classroom, our students are even more happy to come to school. They immediately have a friend, someone they can trust and share what they’re going through.”
Back in fifth grade, it’s finally time for recess. Chimes of young voices call out for their Tommie friends to join them outside.
Alejandra Soria ’25, a scholar from the Dougherty Family College and whose family is from Bolivia, walks with her pod to the playground, where she joins the students in blowing bubbles.
“I didn’t think I made that much of a difference until one day I showed up, and they all ran up and hugged me,” Soria said. “It’s nice knowing that not only are we making an impact in their education, but they have that sense of community with us, they can trust us and count on us.”
Giving back to the next generation feels right for Soria, who enjoys watching her students grow with each visit. And as the school year begins to wrap up, she plans to be back next year.
“Building that connection and those friendships is powerful,” Soria said. “We’re having an impact, building community in the classroom.”