Dwight Hall Urban Fellow Eliana Cortez ’25 Leads Q House Youth Council, Offering College Readiness Programming to Hundreds 

Eliana Cortez ’25 (right) pictured with members of the Q House Youth Council and New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Madeline Negrón (middle). Photo Source: New Haven Independent

For two years, Eliana Cortez ’25 has led the Youth Council of Dixwell Community House (Q House), a community center that offers a vast array of services to New Haven residents, including a library, a health center, and a senior center. In her position, Eliana has facilitated a space for young New Haveners to use their voice and design services for fellow students, including presentations on applying to and affording college.

Eliana’s involvement with Q House began her first year of college, when she was placed there as part of Dwight Hall’s Urban Fellows program. Founded in 1994, Urban Fellows is an academic-year program whereby Yale University undergraduates gain exposure to today’s urban challenges and work with community professionals to find real solutions. Fellowship placements seek to uncover and counter urban challenges through neighborhood empowerment, community-building, and economic development. Fellows dedicate six to eight hours per week to working in either a community organization or government agency, where they receive professional mentorship and develop a personalized project.

As a Fellow, Eliana’s primary role is to run the Youth Council, which meets monthly to discuss issues affecting young people in New Haven. Though Eliana had once served on a Youth Council herself, she emphasized that the Q House’s council is unique because its leadership truly comes from young people themselves. Whereas other youth councils often put young people in perfunctory or largely symbolic roles, one of Eliana’s first decisions as a college intern was to empower the voices of the members of the council. “[The young people on the council] have more substantive things to say about education than I do,” stated Eliana. “I’m only a few years older than them at the end of the day. And I thought that [experience with] community [involvement] would be really valuable for them.”

Xavier Jones, a senior at Hillhouse High School, has been involved with the council since its founding. Now the Youth Director, he emphasized the opportunity that the council affords. “Being Youth Director at the Q House has been really an amazing opportunity and experience for me,” he said. “Being on the advisory board has allowed me an insight of the more technical aspects of how to run a building like the Q House…I’ve also been able to build a deeper connection with being a resident of New Haven.”

After speaking with the Youth Council, Eliana, Xavier, and Youth Chair Kate Kim, also a student at Hillhouse, concluded that college was a major issue that members of the council and their peers cared about. “There was a lot of curiosity about college,” Eliana explained. “They have varying levels of knowledge about college, applying to college, affording college, everything like that.”

Eliana then approached her supervisor at the Q House, who directed her to Dr. Chaka Felder-McEntire of the Connecticut-based organization Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs, Inc. Higher Heights, which is dedicated to making college accessible for underrepresented students, then worked with the Youth Council to organize a college fair. The event, which was held on October 25 at Q House, was the culmination of months of work on the part of Higher Heights and the Youth Council. The fair welcomed students from every public school in New Haven, and included representatives from 40 colleges, fraternities, the police and fire departments, the Yale New Haven Hiring Initiative, and Cornell Scott Hill Health Center.

Kate emphasized how meaningful the event was for those who attended and for the youth who organized it. “The college fair reminds me of the impact the youth can make and how important it is for New Haven youth to have a voice when it comes to community events like this one,” she said.

Later this semester, the youth council will continue their collaboration with Higher Heights by hosting an event about affording college, this time by bringing in the Connecticut Higher Education Supplemental Loan Authority (CHESLA). Unlike the college fair, which was aimed at students, this event will be after work hours to allow families to come together to learn more about making college affordable.

Looking forward, Eliana wants to continue her work and prepare the Youth Council for her departure after graduation. Therefore, she is seeking someone to serve an overlapping term with her next year.

When she began working with Q House her sophomore year, Eliana also served an overlapping term with an older student, former Dwight Hall Urban Fellow Donasia Gray ’23. Through this experience, Eliana was able to get acclimated to her role alongside a mentor figure. “I’m so grateful that I had all those months working alongside Donasia to figure out how things exactly work,” she said, later adding that, “I think that overlap is very important. Ideally, when I’m a senior next year, a sophomore would be working under me until about March. Then I would step down, and they would take the reins from there. If anyone is interested in community development, I think that this is such an awesome role for exploring that [interest].”

Eliana’s fellowship experience embodies Grow, one of the three pillars of Dwight Hall’s program delivery. Programs like Urban Fellows offer enriching, community-oriented opportunities to Yale students, helping to foster more engaged and empathetic future leaders. For those interested in learning more about Eliana’s experience at the Q House Youth Council, they may contact her at eliana.cortez@yale.edu.

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