Alex Marquez is our alum of the month!
Tell us about your Mikva Challenge experience.
My experience with Mikva Challenge was truly life-changing. It kept me away from the dangers of my neighborhood, kept me safe, kept me involved and interested in learning, and kept me surrounded by successful people and by role-models I greatly admired. I was taught to lead without waiting for others to take initiative. I was part of the Education Council conducting research, with the goal of presenting our findings to the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public School System. The experience helped me understand the voting process, what being part of a democracy looks like, and my responsibilities as a citizen. I saw education through a different lens by developing critical thinking skills different from the pedagogy I had experienced in school.
Working at Mikva was unreal. We were given transportation passes and got paid to learn! There was little room for failure, and the support was always there for when things at home got tough; they worked with you.
I looked forward to my 50-minute commute to arrive early at Mikva. The work we did built discipline, a sense of responsibility, critical thinking, research and writing skills, collaboration, public speaking, confidence, and self-worth, to name a few.
The high standards and expectations showed me that challenge was a vital element to growth and personal development. With the help of my facilitator, Jessica, I learned practical skills and lessons that I will always carry with me. Jessica helped me become comfortable speaking in public and starting conversations with complete strangers, developing a skill I didn’t know had a name – networking. The first time Jessica asked me to facilitate a group discussion, I started sweating and wondered, “Why didn’t I pay more attention to how they do this?!” As you can imagine, I became a better listener after that.
By graduation, I realized that I loved to dig into systemic challenges and solve real world problems. Mikva nominated me to a national leadership scholarship called Posse. Because of my experiences of meeting politicians, I attended and graduated Connecticut College with a major in Government.
What are you doing now?
Last year I left my job at an investment company. It wasn’t a good fit, so I moved to New Hampshire where I found a great support network. I came across a couple of mentors who helped me re-identify and pursue my passion in community-based work. I recently joined Solstice, a community solar nonprofit that increases access to renewable energy. My goal is to learn how to expand electricity access as a basic human rights to people all throughout the world. Something that has interested me is health in the human body. I became ill for a time last year and knew that my health would continue to decline unless I did something about it. I started learning about holistic medicine, which has greatly improved my overall wellbeing.
As I reflect at my high school years I can’t find the proper words to describe how much Mikva Challenge family changed my life. I was always “good at school” and got “good grades,” and statistically was meant to succeed in high school and go onto pursue higher education. But the staff at Mikva helped me tap into a hidden potential I didn’t know existed. They taught me to be hungry to learn, to be persistent, and the value of selfless work. I was accepted into their world, where they saw a hope for the future and knew that their work would positively impact others. Their acceptance and guidance made me believe in myself and value my own contributions as a leader.
I remember being introduced to my first fundraiser through Mikva. The night before, Brian [Brady, Mikva’s President] explained that the event was for donors to decide whether or not to keep giving money to create opportunities like mine. He encouraged us to talk to people, learn about their work, and even though overwhelming, Brian reminded us to be ourselves; “have fun and eat the food”. That evening, I was compelled to show the donors how much I valued the opportunities they helped create. I wanted to represent Mikva in the best way possible and speak professionally, despite trying to “be ourselves”.
As I mentioned earlier, my Mikva experience cannot be summed up in a few words, so I will offer one more example of my experience: The morning we were presenting our research findings to the CEO, I didn’t have enough money to buy a dress shirt, and the one I had borrowed from a friend turned out to have a stain. In a moment, Brian handed a credit card to a staff member who took me downstairs to a mens’ store and bought me the nicest and most comfortable shirt I have ever owned. These are the everyday actions that the staff at Mikva take. They saw value in me when I didn’t see it in myself. I will be forever grateful to Mikva Challenge.