Enihs Medrano (Soc’23) never envisioned herself serving in local government until a program for young people opened her eyes to the power of civic engagement. As a sophomore at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado, Medrano connected with JD Mangat (Mgmt’17; MEdu’22). The fellow Lafayette native and Centaurus alum became Medrano’s coach and mentor in Public Achievement (PA) — a program that empowered them both to strengthen and become leaders in their communities.
PA is a nationwide program that has a branch within CU Engage — the university’s Center for Community Based Learning and Research — which encourages middle and high school students to address social issues in their communities. In the program, groups of seventh through 12th graders are paired with college student coaches who are enrolled in School of Education courses at CU Boulder.
“I could literally say that it changed my life,” said Medrano, who is now 20 and began her term as the youngest member of Lafayette City Council this past December. “When I was introduced to the program, it really gave me that social justice lens that I never learned anywhere. And it put a name to the experiences that I had been living through my childhood and up to high school. It made me realize I’m not the only one that experiences this discrimination and feeling of not belonging. It’s a larger issue.”
“I could literally say that it changed my life... it really gave me that social justice lens that I never learned anywhere.”
Medrano became a CU student in 2019, a decision that was influenced by her desire to stay near family and continue making an impact on her Lafayette community (she originally wanted to go to Baylor in Texas) — thanks in small part to the bonds she built in PA. Her positive experience also led her to enroll in one of the university’s two PA courses (“Renewing Democracies and Communities” and “Teaching Social Justice”) and serve as a coach herself. Mangat, who encouraged Medrano to run for Lafayette City Council, followed a similar path.
Before Medrano was elected to the local municipal body, Mangat was the youngest member serving on the council. Then he was elected as the city’s youngest mayor in 2021 at the age of 26. Now the pair serve side by side. Both attribute PA — which Mangat has participated in as a student, coach and teaching assistant — for giving them valuable mentorship and exposure to experiences they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
Over the course of a school year, students and coaches in PA collaborate to design, implement and undertake community-centric projects that tackle social issues such as police brutality, immigration rights, human trafficking, gun violence and climate change. Past participants developed podcasts, designed a safe space for LGBTQ community members, created a gun buyback program and wrote an ethnic studies curriculum for 11th graders.
In high school, Medrano contributed to a project that aimed to increase diversity in Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at Centaurus High School. With the help of Mangat, who was a PA coach at the time, Medrano’s group hosted informational workshops and presentations and met with parents to introduce them to AP and IB classes and encourage them to enroll their students. While it was a project Medrano worked on from 2016–2019, Centaurus students still support the initiative.
“The projects we did ... were showing how you can create real, sustainable, visible change in your community.”
“We wanted to have more students of color join those classes because the demographics of our school didn’t necessarily match the demographics in those classes,” she said. “We would call parents and host presentations for them to introduce them to these classes for their kids. … Most of the kids [we wanted to attend the classes] were students of color whose parents had a language barrier and we were able to give presentations in Spanish for them.”
“The projects we did were so fun, different and unique. They were showing how you can create real, sustainable, visible change in your community,” Mangat said, reflecting on his time as a mentee in PA. “I got a full-ride scholarship to CU Boulder because of my community involvement. I wasn’t the best academically. I wasn’t the best socially. But I was so invested in my community through programs like Public Achievement that in my interview for that scholarship, that’s all I talked about.”
Every year, CU Boulder works with 250 middle and high school students within the Boulder Valley School District through PA. Those youth are mentored by about 60 undergraduate coaches, who apply to be a part of the courses via a closed enrollment program. That means that instead of sending in a formal application, interested undergrads can set up a short one-on-one meeting with PA assistant director Soraya Latiff (IntlAf’17; MPubAd’21) and another program member to share why they want to be a coach. This process allows the PA team to connect with prospective coaches on a more personal level, Latiff said.
“It is really valuable for us to make sure that we are getting to establish a relationship with people who are coming in — to get a sense of who they are, what their identities are, what their values are and what issues of injustice they’re really mobilized by and why,” said Latiff, who also serves as the CU Engage communications manager.
Of the 40 to 45 individuals who were coaches in the spring 2022 semester, about 90 percent were people of color and many were first- and second-generation college students, Latiff said. Once they take the course for a full year, students are eligible to apply to be a PA teaching assistant, and most stay in PA for multiple years or for the duration of their time at CU.
“In our [spring 2022] cohort, one-third of the CU students had gone through the program in middle school or high school, became a coach and are now a teaching assistant,” she said. “It’s really kind of exciting to see how it’s grown to become so much more of a community oriented space.”
Latiff also mentored students as a PA coach at Centaurus High School and Angevine Middle School, served as a teaching assistant, and worked as the program’s coordinator during her year-long tenure as an AmeriCorps service member. Since 2021–22 was PA’s first full school year back to in-person classes after implementing a digital program for the COVID-19 pandemic, Latiff is looking forward to building on the momentum of having a physical presence in schools again and witnessing the impact multigenerational participants have within the Boulder Valley School District and their communities.
“JD and Enihs are great examples of that trajectory because they were participants in the program when they were in middle school and or high school, then went to CU and became coaches at the undergraduate level,” she said. “We have a lot of students in the program today who have also walked that path.”
While many PA alumni work in education, others go on to work in business, human resources, film or art — and make those spaces more equitable, just and representative of their diverse bodies, cultures and futures, said Latiff.
“Many students reflect to me at the end of a year how they have not yet seen themselves as a leader, politician or as an activist until PA — however they have always had that power and capacity within them,” she said. “They come to see and know these things in themselves by practicing this work in the community with other young people, organizers and leaders.”
Mangat, a social studies teacher at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, and Medrano, who aspires to be a police officer in the city, are living examples of PA’s power. Medrano and Mangat’s families are rooted in Mexico and India, respectively, and they are part of Lafayette’s most diverse city council to date.
“To really make a long-term sustainable legacy, a long-term sustainable impact in your community, you need to be involved in programs like Public Achievement,” Mangat said. “You need to be invested in something much larger than yourself. And I do that every day with my students, but I also got exposed to this through CU Engage.”
Photos by Glenn Asakawa