Joanna de Pena
This Week's Gateway Cities Leader
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
Joanna de Pena is a legislative aide for Representative Marcos Devers and the Founder of Top Notch Scholars, a non-profit leadership development organization that focuses on youth success through motivational speaking engagements, specifically in urban school districts and community organizations.
Can you talk to us about your story, and the unique experiences you had growing up?
I grew up in Lawrence with a single mom after my father suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed – so things were tight. We struggled, but I learned from a very young age that hard work pays off. I was heavily involved in basketball within both my middle school and the Lawrence Boys and Girls Club, and I was able to help lead both teams to championships. Basketball taught me discipline, focus and leadership. During my middle school years there were always fellow students pressuring me to try alcohol, drugs, or skip classes – but thanks to my mother’s positive parenting and my basketball coaches who always coached the importance of respect, going to college, and performing 100%, I never gave in.
When I graduated 8th grade, I was approached with a unique opportunity to attend a boarding school on an academic scholarship – the problem is that I would need to repeat the 8th grade in order to take advantage of the opportunity because I would have to enter as a freshman. My “friends” bullied me while I was making a decision, calling me stupid if I go, and that they would stop being my friend if I left. I knew that this opportunity was rare for a kid from Lawrence, and I was compelled to take advantage of it. I ended up listening to my coaches and mentors and convinced my mother to let me proceed with the process despite her reservations. From winning basketball championships, getting high honors and landing the boarding school opportunity, I realized that I need to make decisions for myself and not listen to negative influences.
That small decision allowed me to not only attend an amazing boarding school, Proctor Academy, but I was able to travel and study abroad in Costa Rica, Spain and France where I also made visits to Amsterdam, England and surrounding cities and towns. I also help lead Proctor Academy to its first championship in the school history for Varsity Girls Basketball. It was a huge accomplishment that all came down to serious hard work, leadership and focus. After graduating Proctor I went to Lasell College to study Business Management. While at Lasell, I completed an internship at Walt Disney World where I took college classes and worked at Magic Kingdom for 10 months in Orlando Florida. I also had the opportunity to go and complete a Service Learning Trip in Ecuador where we assisted an orphanage with their needs. We built a compost hole, refurbished their garden so they can grow their own vegetation, served meals, taught English to a middle school visit, and helped a local farm. I am so grateful for these opportunities.
Describe Top Notch Scholars, the work that you do and the communities you target.
Top Notch Scholars is a leadership development organization that focuses on youth success. The work that we do ranges from youth motivational speaking, classroom-style leadership workshops, and we also host our own events such as conferences and community workshops. We cover a range of topics such as youth success, leadership, bullying, self-confidence, self-respect, positive self-image, goal setting, negative and positive influences, how to get ahead, and finding your passion. We speak to any and all communities, but with a particular focus on inner city communities. Each community has different needs and focuses, and so we research and develop the appropriate topics according to the school or organization that brings us in. This magnifies our impact and forms partnerships with faculty and principals at each school.
What made you want to return to these schools?
Before the nonprofit, Top Notch Scholars, I was heavily involved in the community doing community events with my previous business Top Notch Network. We did walkathons for St. Jude Children’s hospital, golf tournaments, and fashion shows. Due to the success with my business, I was invited back to my middle school to speak to the students. I never intended to be a speaker but I agreed, and I was expecting to speak to a small classroom of students. Instead, I was set up with 6 full classrooms (I was freaking out)! At the end of my engagements, I fell in love with how the kids were inspired and moved by my story and lessons. One girl raised her hand and with big eyes said that she wants to be just like me and follow her dreams. In the weeks following this day, I was receiving emails from the students and staff asking me to come back, the principal asked me to come back and speak to their 7th graders. The rest is history, and other schools and organizations started to contact me asking me to come in. It was then that I found my passion to speak to youth, and so I created Top Notch Scholars as you see it today.
I see myself in the students I speak to, and I think it is powerful for them to see someone who was in their shoes having gone on to be successful. I know what it’s like to come from a Gateway City public school system, and even the fact that I look like many of these students as a Latina makes it feel much more real to them.
What are your goals for students in the Gateway Cities?
My goal for students in the Gateway Cities is to provide a platform of empowerment, confidence and leadership from which the kids can reach their personal success. By speaking and having online videos (coming soon), the kids will have a positive outlet when they feel lost or discouraged. I also know that in these communities it is easy for a culture of negativity to develop. I want to empower kids to create their own social circles. I want them to seek out friends and peers with similar goals, ambitious goals, and help build each other up.
I not only want to inspire and motivate students, but to teach kids the very skills that have brought me to my current success – such as networking, positive decision making, leadership, self-confidence, understanding that failing is ok as long as you get back up, respecting oneself and others, breaking bad habits, identifying your passion, and goal setting. Most of the kids that I speak to have never been challenged to set goals for themselves. I see that as a huge problem that needs to be addressed, and so that has become a key component to the work that I do. Once we address why it is important to set goals, the kids become invested and motivated in their own future – which is a beautiful thing and one that is necessary to achieving success.
What do you consider to be your greatest successes?
My greatest successes come from the stories I hear in return from the students, and it motivates me to continue my work and to reach out to more youth. Every time I speak there are special moments, and more and more kids become empowered to change their habits. All of the thank you emails and letters – from kids that I have spoken to a year ago that are now in high school thanking me for my talk, a kid reaching out to me telling me that my story stopped them from making a bad decision, a mother whose son attended our Youth Leadership Conference last year and told me that the conference changed his life – these moments are how I define my success.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
My greatest challenge is not having enough access to more schools and organizations. Due to the fact that I am just starting out and still a pretty new organization, I am operating at the grassroots level. If I had access to more schools and organizations, I could obviously make a greater impact. I know I will get there and it will take time – and I will continue to network and make my way into schools. Once principals and organizations hear what I am doing they understand immediately the positive impact that I can have on their community, it is just a matter of reaching them.
Anything else we should know about you?
I have an ambitious goal of reaching 1,000,000 kids through Top Notch Scholars, I was also recently invited to be a part of the Board of Trustees at Proctor Academy, and I am writing a book!
I am going to pursue my Master’s Degree in Education at Merrimack College through their 1 year Fellowship program this May, and hoping to pursue my Doctorate after that. My reason to continue my education even after having founded Top Notch is because I want to use these accomplishments as assets and talking points for the youth. I want to show them that they are my motivation, and that there is no reason why they can’t pursue their dreams. I want to share with them the story of a young, Latina entrepreneur constantly growing and developing because when one goal has been accomplished there should always be another to follow.
Learn more about Top Notch Scholars at http://topnotchscholars.org/.Joanna sat down for an interview with Colores Latinos TV- watch it here.