Alex Castro, a rising senior at Roger Williams University from Bristol, spent his summer interning at the Latino Policy Institute. Alex told us what he learned about Our Backyard over the summer.
When family and friends learned I would be interning at the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University this summer, I was met with confused looks and questions. I’m not Latino, the purposes of an ‘institute’ seemed especially ambiguous, and others wondered why a carefree smart mouth like myself was being allowed anywhere near public policy.
After some discussion, we sketched out the project I’d work on: LPI’s first intern would be revisiting LPI’s first report. Released in late 2011, “The Effects of In-State Tuition for Non-Citizens: A Systematic Review of the Evidence” presented a nonpartisan survey of what researchers had to say about undocumented students attending college at in-state tuition rates. The report concluded that allowing undocumented students to pay the in-state rates for public colleges in Rhode Island wouldn’t destroy the state’s economy like soapboxing radio personalities predicted it would. In late 2011, the policy passed, and about 60 students have taken advantage of it since. I then embarked on a quest to find interviewees, one that started with formal emails and inevitably ended with me sitting face-to-face with strangers, swiftly scribbling down pages upon pages of notes.
As a student of both journalism and social science, I’ve been doubly reminded in my studies at RWU of the inaccessibility of people in power. Every journalism student learns that there are some public officials who need extra “encouragement” when it comes to interviews. Every sociology student learns that bureaucracy can be an iron fortress, rather than an open house.
In my experience at LPI thus far, I’ve found this isn’t the case in Rhode Island. Former director of the DCYF Patricia Martinez put aside time to visit me and talk at the LPI office on a (very early) Thursday morning. State representative Grace Diaz’s personal cell number is in my smartphone. Last week I interviewed Rhode Island Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Mancuso via telephone, feeling strangely at ease talking to the head honcho of education in Rhode Island, a woman I’d seen on television just the night before. Over the weekend I even received a call from a high ranking VP from CCRI pursuing a meeting with me on the subject.
What’s fascinated me is the willingness and openness of the individuals I’ve interviewed. Community advocates, admissions managers, state reps and attorneys all have more important things to do than talk to a summer intern, yet every person I contacted for an interview responded in some way. The majority agreed, and most even made time for me for an in-person talk.
The benefits of Rhode Island’s smallness are perhaps best illustrated by my interview with Juan, a Colombian-born student and artist. While chatting over a meal at La Casona in Central Falls, the city’s mayor walked in. Not only did he and Juan greet each other, but they knew each other having grown up in the same square mile. My unexpected encounter with the mayor of Central Falls reminded me of what every veteran Rhode Islander knows: our small state breeds relationships, intensity, intrigue, but within our super dense little state there remains a casualness wherever one goes. In Rhode Island, one gets the feeling they are never really far from home.
Thank you, Alex, for sharing your insights with us and for all you’re doing for Rhode Island. We look forward to what you do next!