The Role of Community, Mentors, and Role Models in Growth

by Nicole Andrea Rapista

I am a first-generation immigrant, a first-generation college student, and a low-income young Filipino woman. I come from an underrepresented background in the international development and social impact scene. The unique challenges my demographic face are insufficiently discussed and advocated for.

However, it is because of youth platforms such as the Youth Assembly at the United Nations, and mentors like Yin-Chu Jou, Artistic Director of Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, and Esperanza Garcia, co-founder of the International Youth Council, that I can confidently say I am a social entrepreneur, an educator, a youth inspirational speaker, a writer, an activist, and also a co-founder of a nonprofit. They have been instrumental to my personal and professional growth and have laid the foundation for the person I am today.

I come from a nontraditional background: I was born in the US, but I grew up in the Philippines around poverty. My environment did not only suffer from a poverty of wealth, but also of dreams. In my world, we were not taught to dream big, to make long-term investments like education, or to cultivate our potential. Our mindset was focused on how to survive our day-to-day. When you come from an environment where people rarely make it out of poverty or even graduate from high school, it is difficult to believe in your potential-we think that we will never amount to anything.

The desperation to have a better life drove me to move back to the US when I was 17 in search of better educational opportunities. As an idealistic sophomore at a community college in Newark, New Jersey, I knew that I wanted to be involved in international development. But I had no idea where to start. I found Esperanza's blog and decided to cold email her to seek her advice. She generously invited me to an awarding ceremony in New York City, where I met other International Youth Council (IYC) leaders.

Meanwhile, I met Yin-Chu through our shared passion for intercultural development. She invited me to be a youth delegate and moderator to the 4th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Global Forum in Doha, Qatar to discuss Diversity as a Tool for Development. At the time, I had zero experience in moderating a panel, let alone leading a group of other youth leaders, but I was perseverant to figure it out myself. I was nineteen then and was the youngest in a group of likeminded individuals who were already pursuing their masters or law degrees. I was intimidated to say the least, but I have always been driven by an insatiable curiosity and a thirst for learning.

Through IYC and the Youth Assembly, I was introduced to the world of development and to an incredible network of friends who were dedicated to helping make the world a better place. I started to get more involved at the United Nations as a youth delegate-delving into grassroots mobilization, policy, development, and participating in various UN Commissions such as Status of Women, Population and Development, and Social Development. I attended several UNESCO Youth Forums, led a delegation to the Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, facilitated workshops on sustainable development and social entrepreneurship at the Youth Assembly, and co-facilitated a workshop with the UN Foundation on Design Thinking and the Millennium Development Goals with 500 youth leaders from around the globe at the 2014 Summer Youth Assembly at the United Nations.

I have also been on the executive board of the International Youth Council as the Director of Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship. My focus was educating youth about sustainable development and organizing grassroots initiatives in the Millennium Development Goals and discovering ways to get youth involved.

On March 2014, through the lessons I've learned from being exposed to workshops at the Youth Assembly and a community of like-minded peers, I co-founded Watson Institute: an incubator program for young entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders in the Philippines who aim to solve the world's toughest challenges.

Today, Yin Chu and Esperanza continue to be my dear friends and mentors; I speak with them regularly about my personal and professional life, and even confided in them about my struggles with depression and mental health. Esperanza now serves as a member of the advisory board of my nonprofit.

Having a community like the Youth Assembly and mentors and role models such as Yin-Chu and Esperanza (who have both made incredible impact on their work as artist and environmentalist respectively), inspired me to dream big and imagine a better future for myself and others. They inspired me not to become a victim of my circumstances or be a product of my environment. They helped me cultivate strong values and principles to live by, such as developing authentic relationships and helping others along the way. Their commitment to service taught me the value of grit, perseverance, and humility. Their vulnerability gave me the courage to wholeheartedly pursue my passions. That is why I believe having role models is very important: it broadens our imagination, provides us a glimpse of success, and empowers us to fulfill our potential.

Nicole Andrea Rapista is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Watson Institute Philippines.