By Stephanie Harp

To hear Allan Monga talk about it, Make It Happen! is the best support system that any high schooler could ever hope to have. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Make It Happen. For me, it’s a life-changing program. It’s just wonderful.” Monga graduated from Portland’s Deering High School in 2019. Throughout his high school years, as an asylum seeker who had only arrived a few years earlier, MIH helped him navigate the American school system, apply for a job, get ready for interviews, and apply to colleges. “They just helped me with a lot of things. I am really glad this program is there, and I highly recommend that if schools don’t have this program, they should have it.”

Sheila Jepson, Ann Weber, Didon Maombi Heri, Bill Weber and Timothy Cronin

Make It Happen! is a college readiness program that helps multilingual students build competitive academic profiles for college admission and financial aid, with site coordinators for Casco Bay, Deering, and Portland high schools. The site coordinators help students take challenging classes, improve their standardized test scores, develop competitive college applications, and engage in leadership, community service, and professional development opportunities.

The brainchild of Grace Valenzuela, MIH started as a grant-funded pilot in 2007-08 when Valenzuela oversaw the English Language Learning department of Portland Public Schools. She is now the school department’s executive director of communications and community partnerships. “It was my vision,” she said. “It’s basically addressing specific needs and the barriers that immigrant and refugee students face.” Valenzuela recognized that ELL teachers were so busy helping kids who were struggling that they didn’t have time to support the students who clearly were on their way to achieving their goals. “That’s why I had to create a different program,” she said. “The kids need a little boost, and I knew that it could be done. But I didn’t know that it would last this long, or that we were going to be in this place where we are right now.”

Where they are is enrolling over 300 students each year across the three high schools, and sending MIH graduates, with financial aid awards in hand, to multiple University of Maine campuses, University of New England, and Southern Maine Community College, to Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby colleges, and out of state to the likes of Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley colleges, and Brandeis, Northeastern, and Princeton universities. MIH participants have a higher graduation rate than the overall district, and higher grade point averages than other students who are multilingual. Over the years, colleges have learned that MIH graduates know how to succeed.

“They have been through the ringer. They have worked hard. They know how to create their goals and plan, and have the executive functioning skills to be successful because that is very important in a college student,” Valenzuela said. “They’re powerful kids. If you’re a star, you’ve got different invitations to apply to different colleges. We try to pick well-rounded kids, not just the ones who will become lawyers one day, but also the ones that are engaged and like to help the community,” she said. “The interesting thing about our students is that they want to give back. They learn the importance of community engagement. That’s the part of the leadership training and empowerment building that is a core part of the program, in my mind.”

Several MIH graduates have combined their interests into fields like community organizing or immigration law. Since graduating from Deering, Allan Monga has been giving back by working as a certified residential medication aide, personal support specialist, and certified nursing assistant at an assisted living facility. In the fall, thanks to a University of Southern Maine Promise scholarship and a second one from Prosperity ME, he will enroll in USM’s nursing program, and one day he would like to be a physician.

MIH helps lead students to varied opportunities to gain experience, and offers leadership roles for them to be civically engaged. Program volunteers take them to visit colleges, and coach students in writing college application essays and applying for scholarships. “Whether it’s just preparation, offering them that kind of support, the volunteer academic coaches are important people in that mix. They can provide individualized assistance to students,” said Valenzuela. MIH works with Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) and Portland Public Schools guidance counselors to help students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, if they are eligible, which asylum seekers are not.

“For many of our students, it’s about the lack of social capital. They really have limited opportunities to expand their experiences, and so the program provides them that,” she said. “We offer all kinds of support. When they choose, we encourage them to take rigorous courses, and when they take those classes, they are supported.” Volunteer academic coaches tutor the students, with typically five to 15 coaches per school who meet with students for at least one to two hours each week, often with multiple students at a time. Tim Cronin is the overall program coordinator.

Initial inspiration for the program came from a student who wanted to talk to Valenzuela about immigrant students and their academic success. “We got to talk, this is a kid who just arrived in the U.S. as a high school student. He was really flabbergasted that some of the immigrant kids were not putting all their best into the work, from his perspective, and were wasting the opportunity that they would not have had, if they had been in their home countries.” She asked if he knew other kids like himself who wanted to work hard and take everything seriously. He did. She told him, “OK, why don’t you gather them together. It will be interesting to figure out what it is that they do, and their minds and attitudes that help them keep that focus.” She held a focus group and learned some things that now are essential structures of Make It Happen! to break down barriers and create structures that support the students.

Something else she learned from talking to the focus group was that the kids had active social lives, but it didn’t consume them. “They were healthy, adjusted kids. What was common was they had a goal. They saw themselves in a whole place in their minds. I actually point-blank asked them about this.” She knew that skill-building was something she could teach other kids to do. “It’s not innate, it’s not a personality thing. The kids know how to set goals and ask themselves the question, ‘Will these activities help me get to where I want to go, or will they distract me from where I want to go?’ ” If they thought it would be helpful, they did it; but if not, they didn’t get ostracized by the larger group. “They sort of knew how to live in that world of not succumbing to peer pressure. If you do not have a goal, that’s hard. We can show kids how to do that.”


At first, parents didn’t know what MIH was. “In the beginning of the program, when we did not have a name, we recruited and we were telling the families, ‘We selected your student to join us because we couldn’t afford to do this for everyone. It’s a selective program,’ ” she said. “Then I had to sell it to the families to make sure they knew who we were and that we were supporting their students. Now we don’t have to do that.” That has changed over the years. “It’s a presence in the community now. People know about it.”

One thing boosting current awareness is the grand prize awarded to Make It Happen! and Portland Public Schools in the National School Boards Association 2021 Magna Awards, the first Maine district to be recognized in the award’s 27-year history. Sponsored by the NSBA’s American School Board Journal magazine, the awards honor districts for programs that advance equity and break down barriers for underserved students. MIH will use the $5,000 in prize money to establish a college scholarship fund. “We are probably going to fundraise so that every year we give something to the graduating seniors, even just a computer for each kid who’s graduating,” said Valenzuela.

The first funding for MIH had come from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation. “They talked to the kids and they were listening to their story,” she said. Like Allan Mongo, the kids told Cohen representatives, “This is the program that should be in every high school in the country.”

Allan Junior Monga


MIH students also share the experience of being first generation immigrants or having come to the U.S. as young children. “They hone and strengthen their identity development, particularly to see having another language, other than English, as an asset, which you normally wouldn’t get because everyone is saying that you need to learn English. Seeing them being multilingual and multicultural as an asset, in that way they gain confidence.” MIH dismantles what Valenzuela calls the “false deficit” model of language learning.


Some of MIH graduates have gone on to law school to work in immigration law and other specialties. “It’s amazing, the reach of the program and how they’re affected by the experience,” she said. And not just the students, but the support personnel and community volunteer coaches also tell Valenzuela that participating in the program changed their lives. They thank her for enriching their lives by letting them serve the kids.


Monga calls MIH his “number one team” that helped him compete in the Maine – and the subsequent national – Poetry Out Loud events in 2018, during his junior year at Deering. He won the Maine contest and filed a lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation for permission to participate in the national competition, something previously open only to permanent U.S. residents. He won the suit and traveled to the Washington, D.C., event.

MIH “felt like home,” he said, and still is helping him, as he prepares to start college. “This program does not end when you graduate from high school,” he said. “The people who run the program still check up on you. If you need anything, they’re always there for you.” Monga needed help applying for the two scholarships that are making college possible for him. “A bond forms even beyond high school. It becomes part of your life. And that’s one thing I’m really grateful for.”


Valenzuela knows what Make It Happen! can do. “It’s about the impact,” she said. “This is our intent, but what’s our impact?” For the last 13 years, the impact has been considerable. And now, with national recognition and seed money to do even more, the only question is how big the impact can be.

Monga calls MIH his “number one team” that helped him compete in the Maine – and the subsequent national – Poetry Out Loud events in 2018, during his junior year at Deering. He won the Maine contest and filed a lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation for permission to participate in the national competition, something previously open only to permanent U.S. residents. He won the suit and traveled to the Washington, D.C., event.


MIH “felt like home,” he said, and still is helping him, as he prepares to start college. “This program does not end when you graduate from high school,” he said. “The people who run the program still check up on you. If you need anything, they’re always there for you.” Monga needed help applying for the two scholarships that are making college possible for him. “A bond forms even beyond high school. It becomes part of your life. And that’s one thing I’m really grateful for.”


Valenzuela knows what Make It Happen! can do. “It’s about the impact,” she said. “This is our intent, but what’s our impact?” For the last 13 years, the impact has been considerable. And now, with national recognition and seed money to do even more, the only question is how big the impact can be.