Cintya Renderos has been on a tight schedule.
The senior honors student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria juggles a paid internship and volunteer work during the week, and on the weekends takes care of her two brothers, Rene, 10, and Javier, 6. She's their primary caretaker when her parents are at their weekend jobs.
It's never been easy for Renderos to juggle school and home responsibilities, and her volunteer work made it tougher. But Renderos, 18, knew it would be impressive on her college applications, so she made it a priority. Besides volunteering at the American Red Cross, she has also volunteered with the National Honor Society and the Latin American Student Society, where T.C. Williams students translate at parent-teacher conferences at Mount Vernon Elementary.
For some students, many of them from immigrant families like Renderos's, the choice between community service and family obligation is really no choice at all. Family responsibilities come first, and sometimes that means extracurricular activities such as volunteering get set aside.
School officials who work with children of immigrants say it's not uncommon for students to miss school because they're out translating for their parents or meeting other family obligations.
If parents work two jobs, or there is a single parent, high school students often must meet younger siblings after school, oversee their homework, cook dinner and put them to bed, says Guadalupe Silva-Krause, a parent liaison at T.C. Williams.
"Even the boys do it," she says.
Alexandria's only public high school, T.C. Williams does not require students to complete volunteer hours to graduate, as in the District, where students must log 100 community service hours. Yet Williams school officials such as Silva-Krause stress that service can lead to other opportunities. It's her job, she says, to help explain this to immigrant parents.
Jamila Mahdi, youth program manager at the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, says she regularly advises young people -- whether they are heading for college or to work -- about the importance of balancing academics with extracurricular activities, including service. Too often, she says, students don't understand that their volunteer experience can be put on their resumes.
"Volunteer work is work experience," Mahdi says. "It's just not paid work."
Renderos got an early start. Her volunteering began when she was 6 and left El Salvador to join her father, Oscar, in Northern Virginia. They did service work for the immigrant community at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Falls Church.
Her mother, Ana, arrived in the country six months later, after selling farmland she'd inherited. Her arrival meant new responsibilities for her daughter.
"Everywhere I went, I brought Cintya to translate," her mother says. "I was afraid."
Cintya says her mother took her out of school and together they'd ride the bus to doctors' appointments, jobs and the immigration office. "I'd go translate for her for whatever she needed. My dad wasn't that fluent in English either, so I was the one who went," she recalls.
About the time Cintya started high school, Ana Renderos began studying to become certified as a nurse's aide. "Sometimes I'd say, 'Cintya, I don't know this word,' and she'd say, 'Mami, I have my own homework.' "
Early work as an interpreter and translator -- for the family, church and school -- has helped Cintya at her volunteer job at the Alexandria chapter of the American Red Cross. She is currently translating its volunteer manual to Spanish and coordinating after-school programs for bilingual students. Many times, her brother Rene is with her.
Sometimes, both boys are "chillin' with me and my friends," she says.
Liska Friedman, mental health coordinator for the past six years at Bell Multicultural High School in the District, is very familiar with experiences like Cintya's, as well as more difficult situations.
"Students who support themselves -- many of them recent immigrants who still want to go to high school -- are the ones who struggle the most," she says, adding that Bell tries to be flexible with its community service program.
"I've never seen a student not graduate because they hadn't done their hours," she says.
The school also provides in-house service opportunities. Some students earn hours from service-learning projects that are part of the classroom experience. Others can use their lunch period to help a teacher or, if they're seniors, volunteer at the school during their free period.
Jeffrey Vargas, chairman of the National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers, wants to help students with such issues. "Someone with overwhelming family responsibilities is expected to be as successful as someone who has none -- that's a very difficult math equation. We've got to find ways to get at it," he says.
To address issues affecting the area's approximately 22,000 Hispanic youths, Vargas's group has joined with others, including the Departments of Agriculture and Energy and the Hispanic College Fund, to present a program on the how-tos of college success. Students from 100 area high schools will meet to learn about academics, leadership and service at the Greater Washington, D.C., Hispanic Youth Symposium in July at Marymount University in Arlington.
An important step toward improving the situation, some say, is for students, their parents and institutions to start thinking differently about service.
"Anything you can do to share who you are and how you've had to conduct your life is essential to share with admissions," says Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. "It's the whole student we're trying to bring to a campus."
Unfortunately, low-income and first-generation college applicants often see their efforts as "just what you do," Smith says. But when applying for college, students should share all aspects of their life experience.
Says Mahdi: "Volunteering is not always an organized sport. It's simply helping out your neighbor." Some kids are fulfilling church duties or working at home or even helping a senior neighbor by shoveling snow or running an errand for them. They don't recognize these acts are service and worth talking about.
Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, describes the admissions process as "more of an art than a science," and he notes that "our best hope is that college counselors at the high school, community college and university level will continue to work together to increase the transparency of this process and diminish the advantage of affluence over talent."
Cintya Renderos's efforts paid off -- for the most part. She got accepted into the schools she was interested in and would like to enroll in the pre-med program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She wants to become a pediatrician. But money is an issue.
"The college has given me all the scholarships they can give me, but it's not enough," says Renderos, who graduates next month. "My parents can't afford it."
She explained to the school that her father quit his weekday evening job, but that didn't qualify her for more financial assistance, she says.
The paid internship as a student teller at the Alexandria City Credit Union may turn into a full-time job, says Cintya, who is considering going to school part-time.
"Something's gotta come up," she says.