Faces of JAG: Rizky Watuna

A rising graduate with big dreams and a heart of gold.
January 19, 2024

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when Rizky was a child, she migrated to Namibia with her family as a refugee due to the ongoing wars in her home country. When she was in middle school, she then migrated with her family to the United States. A stellar student with proficiency in English, she faced challenges moving to a new education system where she was placed in a lower class than the one she had been in back home. This experience was only the start to the other hardships she would face as an immigrant child living in between her African and American roots.  

Growing up, she was bullied and treated as a stereotype. As a result, her mental health and grades suffered. Because she was in environments where she was made to feel like she didn’t belong, she had a difficult time adjusting. With all the other personal stuff she was navigating in her life as an adolescent, her mom passed away. Already in her short time in the U.S., she navigated numerous hardships.  

When she began high school, she sought to turn it all around and focus on her grades and future. Before joining JAG, she joined JROTC and STEP (Student Expedition Program). By the end of her sophomore year, she had a 4.0 and leadership skills to boot. Eventually, her dad was able to buy a house in Tolleson, and this is where she would start the next chapter of her life as a JAG Works program participant.  

JAG Works has similar aims to JROTC and STEP, but one key difference is that it is community-based. Since it is community-based, the program focuses on the individual needs of each young community member while also cultivating belonging within the community. There are many benefits of the program such as education advancement, career exploration, building self-esteem, growing as leaders, and community engagement through several events and activities during the year. 

Rizky joined JAG this past year and as she puts it, “JAG is home to me. It literally changed my life.”  In her short time in the program, she has assumed a leadership position for Civic and Community Service, learned valuable skills in networking, and explored nonprofit program management and real estate for future career plans.  

“My mental health right now is better because I have Sonia [Tolleson JAG Works Coordinator]. She always checks in with us and talks with us. Ruben at the Rec does too. My grades have also improved. My life has totally changed.”    

This past summer, she completed paid job shadowing experiences for the Work-Based Learning Program funded by the GEER II Summer Enrichment Grant. Rizky and another one of her fellow program participants also received professional attire through Target’s Gift Card Donation program. From those experiences she learned “that you have to learn how to interact with people. You have to learn how to speak up and network because we as people need each other. No matter what you’re doing in life it’s most likely handed down by someone, so you got to learn how to network and speak up.”    

It’s Rizky’s final year in high school, and she is already working on her future career goals. In addition to her role as Civic and Community Service Chair for Tolleson JAG Works, she also co-founded a school club at Tolleson Union High School called Roots and Foundation.  

“Our goal is to provide a safe space to celebrate diversity, teach relevant life skills, and offer mentorship to fellow students. Our mission is to reconnect the bonds broken long ago amongst children of the diaspora, promoting communication, understanding, and unity within our melanin family.” 

This is the first step towards a bigger goal she has which is to run a nonprofit that supports first-generation college students, immigrants, refugees, and students from low-income families by connecting them to opportunities like JAG Works, STEP, TRIO, and more. 

“These programs can provide them with the necessary skills for success in the corporate field and universities. Essentially, my nonprofit aims to act as a bridge between students and the opportunities that could guide them towards their goals.” 

“As teens we go through a lot, and I feel like we just need that guidance. We can’t always rely on our families. Of course, our families love us, but to me, just being an immigrant, I know there are certain things that my family doesn’t know. There are certain opportunities that my family doesn’t know, and we need community programs like JAG to let us know about these opportunities because without them, we miss out. Then after high school we are like ‘now what?’” 

As she develops the plan for her nonprofit and continues serving her community, she plans to enroll in an HBCU in Alabama where she has received a full ride scholarship. She will pursue a degree in marketing and also serve in the military. Her first priority is to support her family, and all the while, she will take the steps needed to stay on track for her other long-term career goals.  

Rizky has endured many hardships over the years, and she has experienced many joys and success as well. Her journey has taken on the form of unrelenting dedication to serving others and exploring all that life has to offer.  

Her roots give life to a foundation from which to feel at home wherever she is, “I’m an immigrant and I am so proud of it. At first I wasn’t, but now I say it all the time because I’m very proud to be an immigrant. It is honor and a badge of strength. You have to be really strong to go through something like that in life.” 

Because of donations to our JAG organization, we are able to open JAG Works in more communities and schools and reach more bright, hard working students like Rizky. To donate to our JAG programs and support JAG’s expansion throughout Arizona, please visit our website.

For more student success stories like Rizky's, see our Faces of JAG interviews!

Author:
Kaylee Craig
Grants Coordinator
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