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Giving Back: United Way volunteer helps international students adjust

December 15, 2016

By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

Growing up in the countryside of Barbados, Adam Cunningham knew he wanted to soar. At first, he wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen but soon knew to accomplish his dreams he would need to leave his island home. Like many Caribbean families and families everywhere, academic achievement was everything. His parents were ready to have him take whatever steps necessary.

United Way volunteer Adam Cunningham enjoys helping middle-school and college students succeed. Credit: Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

“I had a lot of fun as a young kid in school,” Cunningham said. “People are serious about academics, and I always felt like I wanted to do more. There was positive peer pressure at my school; you were popular when you were smart. It was part of the culture. In high school, I started to lose that focus. I left, didn’t finish my A levels, but then in community college, I started to thrive and, with God’s grace, was able to see what was more important.”

His dad suggested flight lessons, and Cunningham began to see a vision for the future. His grades and experience in aviation led to being accepted into Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Daytona.

His family followed him to the United States soon after, splitting to different parts of the country to help their children succeed. Cunningham’s skills in academics and leadership grew and a series of internships brought him to Jacksonville with Unison/GE Aviation – and ultimately, to volunteerism through United Way of Northeast Florida.

Knowing what it’s like to come to a new country and try to fit in, adjusting to culture and language changes, gave Cunningham the perfect opportunity to give back through United Way.

At first, his volunteerism through United Way consisted of the Stein Fellowship and Achievers For Life mentoring initiatives. Through his Stein Fellowship, where young professionals are mentored by seasoned community leaders, Cunningham found himself learning about business, Jacksonville and fun things like Thanksgiving dinners. In turn, as a Stein Fellow, he became a mentor to a sixth-grader at Fort Caroline Middle School. That student, who emigrated from Africa, also felt nervous about fitting in, just as Cunningham experienced.

“Now, he’s getting better grades,” Cunningham said about his mentee. “Which means, he can play sports! It was inspiring to see how he’s improving.”

Cunningham used the images of African-American leaders posted around the school during Black History Month to help his mentee see what he could be, what he could focus on.

“It may not feel like a whole lot, but I like to see people doing better,” Cunningham said. “I know who helped me: my parents and my pastors. Think of if you were in a country and then left it.”

Now, through United Way’s Upstream initiative, Cunningham gets to be part of a project that could help other newcomers to the United States. United Way’s annual Upstream competition allows college students the chance to develop ideas for social change with a Stein Fellowship alumnus as their coach. These ideas are then presented to a panel of community leaders for the chance to win seed money to make their idea a reality.

As the coach for this Upstream project, Cunningham will guide University of North Florida student Julia Driscoll in developing an afterschool program that would connect other UNF students with refugee children who are trying to adjust to being in this country.

“The students are competing for funding,” Cunningham said. “The idea [for coaches] is to be a resource, to help them connect, to help those students succeed. I know what it’s like to be new to a country and so do so many of the people I work with.  I’ve met people there who were refugees – some were the Lost Boys of Sudan, some from Bosnia, Cambodia. I can’t think of a better thing to do than help this project and bring the resources that I can.”

United Way’s Upstream competition is now underway and will culminate on a Pitch Party celebration Feb. 9 at the Jessie Ball duPont Center. For more information, visit unitedwaynefl.org/upstream.