Cesar Cortorreal – A Spark Ignited

“[Summer Search] has taught me that I can do anything that I set my mind to. I believe in paying it forward, so I want to mentor others and give back. This program changed me and I want to give that same opportunity to someone else.”

That was Summer Search Philadelphia college student Cesar Cortorreal speaking to the The Philadelphia Tribune in a recent article about the impact Summer Search has had on young people in Philly.

Cesar at Franklin and Marshall CollegeCesar on the Franklin and Marshall College campus.

You might remember Cesar from our Press Play series a few years ago, where we gave a behind-the-curtain look at conversations between students and mentors as they prepared to go to college. Back then, Cesar was graduating as president of his high school class and had just been accepted into Franklin and Marshall College (F&M)!

A little more than two years later, Cesar is majoring in Sociology and Cultural Anthropology, staying involved on campus, and giving back any chance he gets.

In fact, as he shared with the Philly Tribune, Cesar is having a very busy summer doing just that. He was in China and India through a study abroad program at F&M, and he’s currently finishing up facilitating in F&M’s three-week college prep program, helping rising high school seniors get ready to make the jump to college. In between all that, Cesar is working as a summer fellow at Summer Search!

Cesar was kind enough to carve out some time in his jam-packed schedule to answer a few questions about his fellowship experience, how college is going, and much more!

Summer Search: What made you choose to be a Summer Search fellow?

Cesar Cortorreal: I decided to be a summer fellow at Summer Search because I appreciate and love the qualities and vision that they have for each student. They believe that through summer experiences and mentorship, students can become stronger individuals.

I also wanted to witness the different angles of a nonprofit. What does it take for an organization like Summer Search to be successful? What are the roles of each staff member? Overall, how does everything stay functional?

So far, I have witnessed the workload, dedication, and passion it takes to work for a non-profit. I’ve witnessed mentors, Tolu and Alex, balance being mentors but also handling outreach and student summer programming. I’ve witnessed Kaitlin dedicate her time to the College Success students post high school, as well as ensuring that students in their junior and senior years [of high school] know the necessary steps that need to be taken to be on the right path to college.

Cesar and mentor Tolu at Summer SearchCesar and mentor Tolu Oladele in the Summer Search Philly office.

SS: How does it feel to be on the “staff” side of Summer Search?

CC: Honestly, being on the staff side is amazing. Each person is so passionate and dedicated to student success and I love it. I have a drive for student success and everyone in the office is living my aspirations: seeing students succeed. Although, it is not easy. There is a lot of budgeting, paperwork, training, and conversations that need to be held, but at the end of it, it’s to make sure that the students are having the best experiences and speaking to the best mentors.

SS: In the Press Play series, you expressed how you strive to be a leader in your family and community. How have you continued to do that in college?

CC: I am actively involved in and outside of school, trying to be a positive role model to the people around me.

On campus, I am the Vice President of F&M’s non-Greek brotherhood, IMPACT, that focuses on community service and academia; I am a mentor for a group of ten students from Newark, NJ known as the Cooperman Scholars and I guide them through their first two years at F&M; and I am one of many House Advisors (HA) who monitor a group of around eighteen first-year students, assisting them through their first year of college.

In my community, I am part of the Herb It Forward Foundation which schedules community service events throughout the year. I participated at the Rescue Mission serving food to men in Philadelphia who were homeless, recently incarcerated, managing disabilities, and more. In addition, I visit my high school, Olney Charter High School, and speak with students frequently, empowering them and convincing them to go to college and become more than what they believe is possible.

In my family, I am the first person to graduate from a four year high school and first person to go to college. As a Summer Search graduate, I started a platform for my siblings to join Summer Search, including my brother Ramon, who is a current Summer Search sophomore!

Cesar's High School GraduationCesar at his high school graduation in 2016 with mentor Kaitlin Irvine.

SS: How are things going in college? What kinds of skills have you learned while in Summer Search that have helped you navigate the college experience as a first-generation student?

CC: I honestly believe that my college experience would have been different if I had never encountered Summer Search. It surprises me how much people are different in the world, from ethnic background to education. Some people have never been around people of color and some people of color have never really been around white people. As a first-generation college student, Summer Search has taught me to make connections, embrace cultural differences, and to be understanding.

I found myself facing both racism and heteronormativity, not that the college promotes it or excuses it, but because people have not been exposed to different mindsets and beliefs in their hometowns. Through those experiences, I was able to reach out to my mentors, both Summer Search mentors and school mentors, and speak about the way I felt. It was hard being in an environment that was ignorant, as well as juggling the rigorous academics. But, I was able to be understanding on why people thought the way that they did and make the appropriate connections to comfort me and ensure my well-being.

SS: Are there any important moments you had during your Summer Search experience that you’d like to share?

CC: Of course my summer experiences were life-changing, but in reality the one of the most life-changing moments in Summer Search was my interview for Summer Search. I was being interviewed by [mentors] Vanessa and Jared, and at the end of the interview Jared said, “Wow Cesar. I see a spark in you.”

I left that interview filled with emotions and thinking to myself, “You see a spark, in me?” For the first time [in my life] someone was there to listen to me, and just listen. I spoke the whole time and they were just taking everything in. I spoke about things I never spoke about before, like my father who was incarcerated when I was only two years old. I exposed myself to two complete strangers after spending many years keeping my inner thoughts and emotions to myself.

At that very moment, I realized that I wasn’t alone. I realized that there are people in the world who wish to see people like me strive and become something in life. I realized that I had something in me, but didn’t really see it until Jared acknowledged the spark I had within.

SS: Do you have any plans for after college and your career?

CC: I don’t really know what I want to do after college, I have so many thoughts and paths that I could possibility take. But, I do know that my ultimate goal is to open up my own non-profit, similar to Summer Search, that supports underrepresented students and bridge the gap between high school and college. I want to provide mentorship, inspiration, and lessons that can be instilled in future generations and be passed down, creating a better world.

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