When Isela Melendez-Carpio, ’12, emigrated from El Salvador to Arlington, Va., at age 6, she didn’t speak a word of English. Her two-year struggle to overcome the language barrier sparked a lifelong passion for championing the value of education among Latinos in America.

“My mom barely finished elementary school, and my dad finished high school, but that was back in their respective countries, El Salvador and Guatemala,” she says. “It was tough for them to help me, but my parents always stressed the importance of education.”

With her parents' and her own experience in mind, Melendez-Carpio got involved with Latino student organizations in high school, and her interest in Latino issues deepened. As a first-year student at the University of Richmond, she wanted to continue to explore the subject, but wasn’t sure the Spanish and Latino Student Alliance (SALSA) had what she envisioned. “It was more of a social group,” she says. “I wanted to deal with contemporary Latino issues and how we can address them.”

She ultimately decided to stay involved and, by her junior year, Melendez-Carpio was elected president of SALSA. She worked with the members to firm up the group’s mission, and today, they balance social events with community service and educational programming about issues facing Latinos living in the U.S.

The group also was charged with cosponsoring Latino-Hispanic Heritage Month for the last three years. The celebration, which typically lasts from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, recognizes the culture and traditions of residents who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico, and the Spanish-speaking nations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. 

“I wanted to bring Latino students together and try to promote the culture that we all share and raise awareness about how it really does affect the United States,” she says. “Each year has been a different theme. The first was about our roots and the past. Last year we wanted to focus on the things that Latinos face today. This year, we’re focusing on the future and the things we can do to better our community.”

To reinforce the community connection, Melendez-Carpio and the members of SALSA hosted a volunteer event at a local middle school with a large Latino population. She hopes the event will kick off a long-term mentoring relationship between SALSA and local schools, emphasizing the importance of higher education.

“I think education is one of the biggest issues we face right now,” she says. “I’m always stressing the fact that you have to do well in school because you need to go to college. It’s something nobody can ever take away from you.”