The YMCA holds a special place in the heart of Iraimi Mercado ’12. The organization provided critical support when her family was going through challenging times. Now, she plans to give back on a global scale as a recent winner of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
The sociology major, a Brockton, Mass., resident, this year was one of two Wheaton students selected as a winner from a pool of 700 candidates, of which 147 finalists were nominated to compete nationally. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for independent study and travel outside of the United States. The fellowship funds students of “unusual promise” who have the desire and ability to explore a topic that is personally significant to them.
During her Watson travel Mercado will explore YMCAs around the world and learn the different building blocks of positive youth development. A native of the Dominican Republic, she will begin her journey in Glasgow, Scotland, and travel to Dakar, Senegal, Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Negombo, Sri Lanka.
Working with YMCA staffs in the various locations, Mercado hopes to discover each culture’s particular method of supporting and empowering youth, and by extension, the community.
“I will also work with young people directly to try to give them an understanding of my YMCA experience while simultaneously experiencing theirs,” she says. “I believe that the people at the different Y’s will benefit from the experiences that I have gained through my years of working with children. They will be able to gain a different perspective on how to serve youth and families in their communities.”
Mercado currently works with the Old Colony YMCA’s Big Sister Big Brother program as a case aid. The Brockton, Mass., Y provided her family with transitional housing when her mother had trouble finding permanent work.
“The YMCA provided me with many opportunities and services. Though this was priceless, it was the small things that helped me grow and become successful,” she says. “The people of the Y cared for my well-being. They made me feel special. They helped me find my passion for service and taught me how to express it.”
Working as Y youth counselor, Mercado witnessed the Y’s purposeful, strategic approach in helping families. “As a youth counselor for five years, I used these principles as a framework for helping the kids in my group. I’ve experienced great satisfaction in being able to help them discover their own specialness,” she says.
The senior also has used her leadership skills on campus at Wheaton throughout her four years. She is the treasurer of iSpeak!, a peer advisor for the Global Center for Education, and an ambassador for the Institute for Study Abroad. She also created a mentoring program that aims to help high school junior girls to prepare to successfully transition to the college culture.
The support of staff at the Marshall Center for Intercultural Learning, Wheaton professors, and classmates from Renaissance House, Wheaton’s residence hall for women of color, has helped her embrace her culture and interest in social responsibility, she says.
The soft-spoken poet also notes that iSpeak! has been one of the highlights of her experience at Wheaton. “In iSpeak!, we use our poems, discussions and campus events to shed light on the multiple diversities between us all as humans. Most importantly, I learned the power that my voice possesses and how to use it to speak out on the things that I am most passionate about.”