Teaching Young People How to Dream

"When I work with young Latinos from at-risk backgrounds, one of the themes that eventually arises are long-term goals. They are often asked to dream big – to consider options outside of their current environment or circumstances. This can be very challenging." Keep reading...

By Jessica Gomez, Psy.D. Director of Clinical Innovation | Mar 05, 2018
Young People Dream

When I work with young Latinos from at-risk backgrounds, one of the themes that eventually arises are long-term goals. They are often asked to dream big – to consider options outside of their current environment or circumstances. This can be very challenging. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard, “There’s no way I can go to college”, “My family can’t afford college” or “I’ll never have a career like yours.” I’ll never forget the young girl who told me, “Girls from my barrio don’t grow up to be girls like you.” Her statement floored me, and from that moment, I have not stopped considering how I can support these children. How do we help these young people dream big? How do we show them how to consider their options and see them within their reach? It is a complicated endeavor given that their reality can often be one with real obstacles like poverty, community violence, lack of role models, and lack of mentorship.

As a first generation Mexican-American woman from Chicago’s inner city, I deeply connect to the challenges many of my Latino clients face in obtaining a higher education. I understand that it is not only about good grades and getting into college, but a complicated array of factors. In my experience, the journey begins very early and includes the environment the child grows up in, the relationship with his or her parents, the family’s value of education, the quality of his or her school, and so much more. Many parents of children living in poverty have to work extensive hours in order to make ends meet and have limited time or capacity to support their children with schoolwork. Many schools in inner city or impoverished neighborhoods are at capacity and can have teachers who are over-worked, taxed, tired, or burnt out by the demands of their systems.  This makes obtaining a high quality education more challenging for children from these backgrounds.  

Besides having an early start in quality education, the path to college is a complicated and expensive journey. When the time came for me to go to college, I was accepted into great schools. I was so excited to go to college, especially since I would be the first in my family to attend. Then came the realization that the price of tuition was going to pose a significant barrier. Parents and students need support in knowing how to finance a college education that will help provide their child with more options in life. Then, if they can overcome this layer, the next challenge is staying in college and obtaining a degree.

Once students of color get into college, the issues of retention and representation begin. Latinos continue to enroll in college at an increasing rate. However, graduation rates are not increasing. The reality is that the higher you go in school, in the workplace, in politics, the less likely these young people are to see people who look like them in leadership positions.  That leads to young people looking at someone like me and thinking, “I could never do that.”

In order to teach kids how to dream, we have to do three things. We have to show them what their dreams can turn into, show them examples of people who have turned their dreams into reality, and help them establish a realistic plan with built-in mentorship.


To start, young people need to know what college is like. Not just in an abstract way, but in an actual tangible way. As early as possible, young people should visit a college campus. They should walk around, step into the buildings, take a seat in the classrooms, smell the scents, and step inside a dorm room. They should talk to college students. They should ask them what is hard and what they like about college. They should visit various career settings. They should see the inside of an office building, a doctor’s office, a construction foreman’s office, an auto shop, a political campaign headquarters. If they start to show an interest in finance, they should visit a bank, a stockbroker’s office, the accounting office of a large firm. They should talk to accountants, CFOs and bank tellers. People are happy to talk to young people about their careers, especially when they show interest and passion.

Giving kids these opportunities helps them truly know what to expect as they pursue careers and plants a seed that requires continued nurturance. A young person might say, “I want to help people” without knowing what kind of jobs would satisfy that desire. A young person who wants to be a doctor or nurse but has never stepped inside a hospital can’t really understand what he’s getting into. Especially for young people who don’t have people in their families with these careers, they won’t have exposure to basic understanding of the job, such as hours, appropriate dress, and basic job etiquette.


The next thing we must do is show young people examples of people like them who have gone on to pursue these dreams. I have learned through experience that it’s not enough just to look Latina and be a psychologist. I must also bridge that gap for young people. I have to help them and their families understand the process, purpose and what it takes to set a goal and follow through. This goes beyond posters on the wall of important people of color throughout history. While those are important, there also must be a place for real people who they can talk to and ask questions.

This issue becomes complex when we consider gender expectations. For instance, for young Latinas, our culture gives us many messages about what it means to be a “good woman” and these messages can often counter being educated.  Culturally speaking, women are not supposed to be breadwinners. When women earn more than men earn, or choose to work outside the home or not to have children, there are negative connotations within some traditional Latino communities. When I teach kids how to dream, I also have to ask them what their view of success is. What is their vision for their life? What do they want their life to look like in 5, 10, 20 years? Can they name anyone whose life looks interesting or appealing? In what ways?

It’s also important to engage families in this process. Giving kids and families exposure to different communities can be transformative. When I was trying to go to college, my mentor took me and other young people on trips. We visited the Chicago Cultural Center. We visited museums, neighborhoods and college campuses. We met people who looked like us and people who looked nothing like us. We met people who thought completely differently from us. We left our comfort zone and got out of our environment and suddenly, the world was a much bigger place and my possibilities were endless.


I don’t want to pretend that all a young person has to do is dream, and then it’s rainbows and butterflies. This is why the third piece is so important: helping youth establish realistic goals, and provide constant mentorship. This process of persisting through a higher education is not without sacrifice. Without constant mentorship and support, the journey to a higher education can be challenging.  

As our population continues to diversify and people of color become an even larger portion of the population, we have to work to help young people of color first learn to dream. We can do this by having representation in the workplace, politics and higher education. We can give kids opportunities to see a bigger world than the one they know. And through support and mentorship, we can show them that they really can pursue their dreams – and achieve them. 


This concludes our series on race. Thank you for reading, subscribing and sharing these posts. We hope they have been helpful in working with diverse populations and can help contribute to important conversations about race and equity. Next week, we will begin a new series and we look forward to sharing it with you!