Avila grew up in Cuernavaca, the capital of the Mexican state of Morelos. He was a good student in high school, but his passion was playing tennis.
It was his skill there that opened up new possibilities.
“I was playing a tournament in Mexico, and someone said I had good form and suggested I apply for a tennis scholarship in the States,” said Avila, pictured below in his King College days.
He sent his information to schools in the United States, and the coach at King College in Bristol, Tenn. contacted him.Avila had never been to the United States.
“I struggled my first semester here in the States,” he said. “It was such a culture shock, I was sure I was going back to Mexico.”
Avila said learning in English was a challenge.
“I knew English well enough to communicate and understand most of it, but it was a problem to speak it all the time,” he said. “I think that was my biggest obstacle.”
After struggling with his first semester, Avila was able to bring his grades up.
His grade-point average, a number that identifies how well a student is doing overall, was a 1.98 at the beginning of his first semester, meaning he was making Cs and Ds.
“But I was able to turn that around over those four years, and ended up with around a 3.4 GPA,” he said, ending up with As and Bs.
At King College, Avila was introduced to the XCELL Mentoring Program.
Volunteers and workers for XCELL travel to nine high schools in the Tri-Cities area of Tennessee, and encourage students to pursue higher education.
Juan Avila is now a 24-year old pursuing his master’s in business administration at East Tennessee State University.
“Every student who attended had someone who listened and helped guide them. Our kids need that. They need to know that someone cares about them."
In January 2012, he became the coordinator of the XCELL program at ETSU.
“We become a mentor for the kids,” he said. “That’s what the XCELL program is all about. We have recieved very good feedback from the schools' officials.”
While Avila got the hang of college, many Hispanic students in the United States might miss out on the opportunity to try.
Nikki Engle teaches English as a Second Language for Unicoi County Schools.
“I work with many young people with dreams of being nurses, teachers, college professors and architects,” she said. “Despite their determination, there are many stumbling blocks between their freshman year and their senior year of high school. Many lack parental support regarding an investment in education. Others face peer pressure and a sense of hopelessness.”
Avila said that in many Hispanic families, the kids are the first generation who have thought about going to college.
“They don’t know where to start or what the steps are, and usually they have no one to guide them in the process,” he said.
Engle praised the XCELL program and what it offers Hispanic students.
XCELL mentors “sat down with seven of our graduating seniors and talked to them for several hours about graduating, filling out the FAFSA [financial aid forms] and looking different places for minority scholarships,” she said. “Every student who attended had someone who listened and helped guide them. Our kids need that. They need to know that someone cares about them.”
Avila said the mentor program creates a relaxed environment for students to talk.
“When we go for an XCELL visit, we try to make it an informal meeting,” he said. “We sit in a circle. I don’t want to be the speaker. I want to be at the same level, so it’s easier for them to open up and talk.”
Just as Avila never thought college was a possibility, many of the students he speaks to today feel the same.
“They consider that to be out of their reach,” he said. “We introduce the idea of going to college to them. We present them with a list of things they could study, depending on their interests. What’s better for them is to hear about each person’s experience.”
He said he wants to relate to the students.
“I just tell them my experience in college,” he said. “Going to class, being on the tennis team, studying, friends... the whole thing that lets them know what college is like.”
Engle said that Avila and the XCELL program he coordinates are key in helping her students get into college.
“I need people like Juan. Juan is wonderful because I have students coming in middle and high school who are learning the English language. I need people to tell them that even if you don’t speak English in ninth grade, you can go to college.”
Engle was enthusiastic about ETSU’s Hispanic Student Day, when the Language and Culture Resource Center buses in students from city and county high schools for a tour of the campus.
“Most of them have parents who are working all day, and a lot of times their family has one car,” she said. “It’s a day to spend at college, which is an opportunity they might otherwise not get.”
She said one of her students had come to the United States to be treated for an illness. He was still learning English, but was very gifted with math.
He got to tour the ETSU Computer Science Department, and is now studying at ITT Technical Institute.
“He would not have thought that it was possible, but I think it’s because he went to the college, saw students working in the computer labs, and knew there was a place for him too,” she said.
Avila's passion now is showing students that if he could achieve his goals, so can they.
“Last semester, I met a kid from Mexico, from my hometown, who played tennis just like I did and wanted to study business,” he said. “You have such a connection with them.”