Amaury Perez, '16

February 18, 2015
Cuban immigrant works for social justice in his new country

Amaury Perez, ’16, traced his run of good fortune to 2003 when his mother won the immigration lottery, permitting Perez’s family to move from their native Cuba to Miami, Fla.

Once in Miami, Perez, confronted with the prospect of attending his zoned under-performing public school, applied to, and was accepted at, a charter school considered one of the best public schools in the country.

His third stroke of good fortune came several years later when he received a scholarship to attend the University of Richmond, his first-choice college.

Intrigued by the education inequities he had witnessed firsthand in his new country, Perez enrolled in Dr. Thomas Shields’ first-year seminar, Education and Society. “We learned about the way the education system is structured and how inequalities in schooling have wide repercussions in society,” Perez said.

His community-based-learning class visited two public high schools—one serving low-income students in the city of Richmond, the other serving middle-class students in neighboring Henrico County.

“I will never forget that experience,” Perez said. “The first thing I saw when I walked into [the city high school] was a metal detector. Scary. Also, the technology at the [county high school] was better.”

His sophomore year Perez heeded friends' advice and registered with Build It, the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement’s neighborhood-based program. He volunteered at Boaz & Ruth, a nonprofit dedicated to the successful re-entry of ex-offenders into society.

“I admire what Boaz & Ruth is doing, how they have made the lives of so many people better,” Perez said.

He volunteered the fall semester of his junior year with another Build It partner, the Goodwill Northside Community Employment Center, where he assisted clients with job searches, online job applications, and resume writing.

“I worked closely with a 20-year-old client,” Perez said. “She had dropped out of high school and was struggling with housing, family issues, and part-time employment. But she was looking for something better and asked my advice on how she could get her GED and go to college.

“She was so inspiring. I would wake up at 7 a.m. every Friday wanting to go to Goodwill, because I was so inspired by the people there.”

Some Goodwill clients don’t know how to use a mouse or set up an email account, Perez explained.

“I helped them take baby steps,” Perez said. “Opening an email account can be a powerful tool to connect people to others. Goodwill provides people with opportunities, and this is the most powerful way to fight inequality.

“Goodwill has been a classroom for me. I have learned so much. Computer literacy, stable housing, and education—these are the big issues.”

Perez, who became a U.S. citizen in 2014, wrestles with the societal differences he sees in the country where he was born and the country he now proudly calls home.

“Although Cuba exhibits greater levels of social equity,” Perez said, “the United States without any doubt provides greater opportunities for academic growth and career development and a democratic political system that represents and protects the interests of the citizens.

“However, it is unfair that many Americans, particularly children, do not benefit from many of the wonderful opportunities our country has to offer due to the accidental event of living in the wrong zip code. This is difficult for an immigrant like me to understand.”

Perez, who is majoring in international studies with a focus on politics and diplomacy, is continuing his exploration of social equity during a study-abroad semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he sees a strong emphasis on equality and welfare. He hopes to bring what he learns back to his community work in Richmond.

Photo: Goodwill Northside Community Employment Center manager Shelly Watford (left) supervised volunteer Amaury Perez (right).