By Ali Booth
Elio Velazquez is the only one of his childhood friends from his neighbourhood to make it to college. “I don’t just want to be a statistic,” he says, “I want to help as many people succeed as I can.” Elio grew up in poverty, went to seven different schools in 12 years, and constantly felt like an underdog.
Because of his unstable home life, his education suffered. In the sixth grade he was at the reading level of a second grader. “People saw me as being lesser than what I actually am. I had to constantly prove them wrong,” he says proudly.
He’s come a long way since then and it definitely hasn’t gone unnoticed. His efforts to change the education system in favor of homeless youth have landed him features in the New York Times, ABC News, The Washington Post, a documentary film, a spot on a panel discussion with Congressional panel in D.C., and a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education, John King.
His advocacy for these children growing up in less than ideal situations has led to several policy changes taking place in the standards of national education systems. Now, children who transfer can receive credit for the bits and pieces of time they spent at different schools instead of redoing grades, and students living independently and supporting themselves will experience an updated FAFSA form when applying to college.
“No congressman has ever been homeless. They don’t know what it’s like. That’s why they brought me to the panel. All of them come from middle class families. How could they possibly make the changes necessary for a community they have no relation to?” he asks, well aware of the lack of representation for the people who live in the communities similar to the one he grew up in. His hope is that in the future, students coming from these communities will no longer be deprived of privileges that prevent them from succeeding.
Elio knows the obstacles that these students face; he’s experienced them first hand and believes he could be a representative of this unrepresented population. Of his discussion with Congressional panel in D.C., he says, “I was very cautious. I wasn't just speaking for myself but speaking for everyone else in my community. They were going to take everything I said into account. It was very empowering and emphasized that motivation to succeed because obviously I have a contribution that’s worthy of notice. I gained a lot from that. My voice actually mattered.”
This is the first time he’s felt that his voice wasn’t silenced. “Growing up in poverty, being poor essentially, was always something that I wouldn’t talk about. Nobody really knew. It’s not something you go around talking about. It was an obstacle I couldn’t avoid,” he says. Now that he’s endured the hardships, he’s willing to talk about it and act as an agent for change.
Taking on public policy isn’t the only thing that Elio is known for. On campus, the international business major and triple minor in philosophy, economics, and global studies, is a dance ensemble choreographer, the diversity chair for ARCO, the deputy of civic engagement in SGA, a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity, a tour guide, a student employee in the security office, and is studying abroad to 13 Asian countries in the spring. What’s his secret? “I typically sleep less than five hours a day,” he laughs, “everybody tells me I have strange sleeping habits. Sometimes I’ll sleep five hours during the day and then stay up all night.”
All of these opportunities arose from his driven lifestyle and persistent attitude. “My whole life, if I was presented with an opportunity, I was never going to let that opportunity slip by me. I live with no regrets,” Elio says. He wants to change the stigma that plagues families of lower incomes by eventually going to law school, becoming a public policy maker, and bettering the communities affected by the issues he’s seen. But for now, he’s just trying to get enough sleep to make it through class without falling asleep.