Rainier Scholars Welcomes New Executive Director Rafael del Castillo

by Mark Van Streefkerk 

At a time when social and racial inequities require urgent action, many are asking the question — how can we make a more just world? For the last 20 years, Rainier Scholars has offered answers to that question through education, providing academic access and leadership development to BIPOC and underserved youth. Now with newly-selected Executive Director Rafael del Castillo, Rainier Scholars looks to expand their impact with a greater emphasis on racial justice. 

Rainier Scholars is a 12-year model of rigorous academic preparation, leadership opportunities, and comprehensive support and mentorship for students from Seattle, Renton, and Highline school districts. Beginning with kids about to enter fifth grade, the program supports them through middle school, high school, college, and beyond. Each year, new scholars are grouped into a cohort, a community of peers who work together throughout the 12-year program, fostering connection and confidence to self-advocate in the educational system. In turn, college-age scholars and around 260 alums create invaluable networks for each other and younger cohorts.

According to del Castillo, 95% of Rainier Scholars are first-generation college attendees and graduates. Coming from an immigrant family, his own experience proved that through education, students are able to bring their families and communities with them into greater opportunities, transforming their neighborhoods and workplaces. 

“I know personally what that looks like,” he said. “The entire family gets moved forward into a different space [once a family member graduates college], and the generations that follow move into that space. It’s an opportunity for access that requires a lot of hard work. As an educator, I know that when children work really hard for something, it’s internalized. It’s not ‘someone did something for me.’ It’s ‘I did something for myself.’”

Head of Bertschi School for five years (through June of 2021), and before that head of Seattle Girls’ School for six years, del Castillo has a total of 35 years of educational experience. He was especially proud to take on the position of executive director because his academic beginning was “like a Rainier Scholars moment way before there was Rainier Scholars,” he said. 

Immigrating with his family to Florida from Cuba as a child, del Castillo had barely turned six years old when he started first grade, after being in the U.S. for only a week. Del Castillo still remembers the obstacles he faced, both at school and culturally, and how the invested attention of his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Rogers, helped him overcome those. “I did not understand English,” del Castillo remembered. “There weren’t supports for kids like me at that time. I think I was kind of a nightmare for a lot of folks at that school, but Mrs. Rogers took that personal interest and I became very connected to her.”

Meet the current Rainier Scholars and alumni on the Rainer Scholars website, and read about their interests, connections to the program and what it has meant for them and their futures, and more — in their own words. You can also learn more about the Rainier Scholars staff and leadership team del Castillo will be overseeing in his new role. Readers can even take a virtual tour for an interactive experience “illustrating the power and scope of the 12-year Rainier Scholars journey.” Email tours@rainierscholars.org to sign up to take the virtual tour. 

Rainier Scholars is currently recruiting its 21st cohort. Families of current fourth graders interested in the program must attend an online information meeting on February 18, 24, or March 4. Use this link to join any of the three meetings. Passcode: RSCohort21. For more information please contact Rosida Mohamathno.

Editor’s Note: This article previously stated that Rafael del Castillo was head of Bertschi School until recently; we updated the text to include the month and year we believed he left that position (June, 2020), but that was a mistake on our part as del Castillo will be head of Bertschi school until June of 2021. We’ve also added information about Rainier Scholars recruitment for their 21st cohort for interested families.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

Featured Image: Rafael del Castillo (Photo: Jenn Ireland Photography)

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