Like many academics, Crystal Chen Lee, Ed.D., an assistant professor of English Language Arts education in the NC State College of Education, said she didn’t publish her first peer-reviewed academic article until she was in her late 20s and earning her doctorate degree. Through her work as the director of the Literacy and Community Initiative (LCI) though, she has now helped a group of students author a peer-reviewed article while they were still teenagers.
LCI is a collaboration between the College of Education and the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation that partners with community-based organizations to examine and empower youth voices. For the past 3.5 years, LCI has partnered with Juntos N.C., which works to provide Latinx students and their parents with knowledge, skills and resources to support high school graduation and prepare for higher education.
Working with Juntos and LCI, students in Garner, North Carolina, have already published two books: The Roots of Our People: From One World to Another in 2018, and The Voices of Our People: Nuestras Verdades, in 2019.
Following the completion of the second book, the students began working on a peer-reviewed article — “Poets as Proponents: Creating Safe Spaces for Minorities”,which was published in Fringes, the North Carolina English Teachers’ Association journal.
“I knew that the foundation to write this article was there through all of the training we had with the books and I think at that point I was confident in my writing abilities. It was a big project, but I knew there was a path there,” said Kevin Garcia-Galindo, who participated in Juntos for four years and is now a freshman at Davidson College.
The student co-authors — Andrea Cervantes, Briza Cruz, Garcia-Galindo, Aldo Galvan Hernandez and Luis Cervantes — met every few weeks during the summer of 2019 with doctoral students and graduate research assistants, Kelsey Dufrense and Nina Schoonover, where they began brainstorming ideas and drafting the article.
Dufrense, a doctoral student in the communication, rhetoric, and digital media program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences who took classes with Lee as an undergraduate,explained that she would often come to the meeting with a general idea of what the group should write about on a particular day. The students would then run with the concept, writing passages and even poems on the spot.
“Reading this article and thinking back to writing as a group in coffee shops in Garner, North Carolina, and Transfer Food Hall in Raleigh brings me much happiness. I feel honored to have been able to work with this incredible group of students for two years — and I am just so happy for them,” Dufrense said. “Working with these students has been the joy of my teaching career and I am incredibly proud of them”
“It was amazing to see them throw ideas out as a group and to collaborate as critical friends, guiding each other through the writing process,” Schoonover added. “Seeing these young authors’ names on my CV gives me joy as I think about their futures and the fantastic work they’ve already put forth into the world.”
Along with featuring poems written by the student-authors, the peer-reviewed article focuses on their experiences in their schools and communities and what it has meant to them to have the support of Juntos N.C.
Luis Cervantes, who worked on the article following graduation from high school and is now in his second year at Wake Technical Community College, said co-authoring this article was a different experience to creating writings for the previously released books.
“It was challenging shifting from a personal narrative to something more universal. We wanted to make this something that was bigger than us,” he said.
The students first wrote the article in response to a call from the Harvard Educational Review for student-authored submissions in summer 2019. Although the students submitted their article to the Harvard Educational Review, their submission was not accepted, but Lee said they chose to “pursue and persist.” In learning the peer review process, the students worked to revise their article and selected an open access journal to share their work with educators and students. The article was ultimately accepted in Fringes, the North Carolina English Teachers’ Association journal, where it was published in November 2020.
“It felt good to see my name on the published article, especially knowing that it’s something not a lot of my peers have done,” Cervantes said.
“This was a big milestone for me. I was never really good with other types of art, but I’m good with my words so this accomplishment meant a lot to me,” Hernandez, who is now in his second year at Wake Technical Community College, said.
While Lee, Dufrense and Schoonover provided behind the scenes support in editing and structuring the final piece, and with facilitating the peer review process, the bulk of the published writing came from the Juntos students.
Lee said that during the blind peer review process, many reviewers assumed that the Juntos students received co-authorship credit because they had contributed poems that are embedded within the article. The reviewers were surprised to learn that, in fact, the majority of the article had been written by teenagers.
“The reviewers had no idea they were high school students and they were evaluating the article as if they were reviewing professors,” Lee said. “It’s so rare to have students who have written a piece like this on their own and it just shows that they are all amazing writers.”
In addition to helping them improve their writing skills, the student-authors said that their years working with Juntos and LCI has helped them to feel closer to their Hispanic heritage and inspired them to become involved in community activism and use their voices to inspire change.
“The writing aspect was the most motivating part of this whole program, because in school I never really had the chance to use those skills due to the nature of assignments. Being able to be more creative and write about stuff that people care deeply about brings out the activism in most people, even if they’re not inherently political,” Garcia-Galindo said.
The student-authors hope that other students who see they have published books and a peer-reviewed article will be inspired to make their own voices heard and that other schools, upon seeing the success of Juntos, will establish similar programs to allow students to share their voices.
“I recognize that being able to get your voice out there is a privilege, and I try to capitalize on that,” Hernandez said.