NHI’s Julio Cotto honored by former high school as a notable alumnus
NHIers know how transformational the high school experience can be in their lives — particularly when they become NHI members and take lessons from their first NHI experiences back to their high schools. For Julio Cotto, 1997 was that pivotal year — when NHI, approaching its 20th anniversary, did outreach to a previously-untapped Pennsylvania, and a brochure from the Texas organization found its way to the McCaskey High School student who would come to be very familiar with it.
It happened thanks to his high school counselor, who knew Cotto’s mom well. As he relayed it, “She pulled me out of class and literally said, ‘Hey, I was about to throw this away, and then I thought of you. Take it home and show it to your mom — it’s due next week.’”
Cotto did indeed act upon it, going to the New Mexico LDZ program between his junior and senior years of high school, and then heading back to his high school in Lancaster, about 70 miles west of Philadelphia, with a significant Latino population.
“So much of who I am was rooted in high school,” Cotto reflected. “I think even on a cultural identity level — I’m one of only three people from my high school to have won a state speech championship, and part of what I won with was doing Puerto Rican beat poetry. For me, a lot of the things I did in high school were that early NHI self-educating, taking care of your ownership of your own future and learning.”
But Cotto also immediately recognized NHI’s potential to reach and inspire more students based on the experience he had. “On a pedagogy, learning strategy level, I was a kid that best learns through experiences like NHI, that were not traditional, that were not in a classroom, that were not ‘academic,’ that were experience-based.” He immediately recognized NHI’s appeal, observing even then, “I could do this for a job.”
Cotto captured the McCaskey community’s attention in recent years with his work recruiting throughout the region, being featured in national media coverage around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s journey to Congress, and spearheading NHI’s transition through the pandemic via designing and then implementing online versions of its programs.
McCaskey’s ceremony was supposed to take place last year, but as Lancaster Online noted in its coverage, required postponement due to the pandemic. When it finally took place earlier this month, Cotto was one of five high school alumni members honored — ranging from Franklin J. Schaffner, a 1938 graduate who went on to win a Best Director Oscar in 1971 for Patton (before passing away in 1989) to Quinn Conyers, a motivational speaker and entrepreneur who graduated from the school in 2001.
Cotto was honored to receive the award, and hopes that it serves as inspiration for students curious about the current iteration of NHI. He observed, “Being able to be a name that a kid can look to, that sounds like them and looks like them, I know that in a little town like that, that’s really important.”