Emma Nunez moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age seven. But even after she arrived, she spent most of her childhood going back and forth between two different worlds right here in the Washington area.
At school, her classmates came from well-to-do families—they often had two parents at home and going to college was a given. At the end of the day, she would take a bus to another part of town where she lived with her mother. Many of the other immigrant parents who lived nearby did not have access to education and there were few role models. Drugs and violence were a regular part of life and going outside to play was not an option.
“It was a toxic environment,” Nunez says. “And I grew up with a longing to change and make a difference.”
Today, Nunez is doing just that as the founder and president of the Caobas Foundation, which operates educational and humanitarian programs for at-risk youth. The Caobas Foundation generously provides scholarships to students in Montgomery College’s Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program, a partnership between the College, Montgomery County Public Schools, and the Universities at Shady Grove. ACES is designed to increase access to higher education to students who are most often underrepresented in college classrooms, as well as those who would be the first in their family to attend college.
Early on, Nunez understood the value of education. “School was my refuge. I got to read, go to the library. I got involved in gymnastics, running track, dancing, and playing the clarinet. I hung around people who were college bound. I had exposure my neighbors did not have.”
Determined, she eventually took classes at Montgomery College, opened a successful real estate business and put three of her own children through college. In 2014, Nunez made the decision to finally provide the role models she had longed for herself. She contacted 20 other women from similar circumstances and they got to work.
One of the first to help was co-founder Ana Luisa Mendoza. The two women met years earlier when Mendoza, who is also from the Dominican Republic, helped out in the hair salon operated by Nunez’s mother. Today, Mendoza is a successful systems engineer.
Together with the other founders—including Gladys Abreu-Swann, Yenni Felix, Carmen Medina, Sonia Raymund, Luisa Reyes, and Maria Rodriguez—the group made a commitment to “change things in our community,” Nunez says.
“We realized education would the most empowering thing and many of us went to Montgomery College. We believe in the opportunities a two-year school like MC can offer. I wish there was a program like ACES when I was coming up!” Nunez adds.
The caobas or mahogany tree is the national tree of the Dominican Republic. “It has healthy roots, you can see it bloom and give out the fruit,” Nunez says. And it is the perfect name for the foundation sowing a legacy for the next generation of Hispanic youth.