Avanzando Through College Creates Future Líderes

May 15, 2020 at 4:02 pm

Ni de aquí, ni de allá.

It can be easy for Hispanic students to feel that way, especially if they are the first in their families to attend college: “Not from here, not from there.”

First-generation students can’t seek advice from their parents about how to navigate the transition to college; their parents don’t have those experiences to draw on. The students also bear the added pressure of high expectations at home, where they are considered the “smart ones.” The ones who represent hope.

On campus, having few or no other Hispanic students in their classes can increase feelings of isolation. Latinx students made up 6 percent of the student population this past fall.

They have one foot in two cultures – the one they grew up in, and the one they find themselves in now.  

Thanks to a $25,000 grant from UnidosUS – the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country – the University of South Carolina Upstate this year was able to implement Avanzando Through College. The program supports about 30 students, freshmen and sophomores, who have Latinx backgrounds or who come from low-income households, are first-generation college students or are English-language learners. Students who complete the program receive a $500 stipend.

They meet six times per semester. Each gathering focuses on a different issue, with topics geared toward first-generation students. There’s a presentation and an interactive activity, and sometimes a guest speaker. Topics range from study skills to building relationships, financial aid to public speaking. Araceli Hernandez-Laroche, associate professor of modern languages, and Spanish instructor Maria Francisco Monteso serve as faculty mentors.

“Araceli and Maria are there to be mentors, to really talk to them about ‘how do I navigate this space?’” says Director of Student Success Susannah Waldrop. “And that is an issue of equity, providing an opportunity for them to have room to talk about that. That’s typically not going to happen in their regular classrooms.”

One of the topics this past fall was mental health. After pizza – each Avanzando meeting starts with a meal, a chance for students and faculty to laugh and vent – everyone formed a circle and was handed a marshmallow. One student would stand in the middle and say three things that stressed them out; anyone who was stressed about the same thing would throw a marshmallow at them.

The idea was to show the students they weren’t alone in their struggles and that the stressors really couldn’t hurt them.

“You are not alone,” senior Itzel Tello, one of the group’s peer mentors, told them. “Other people are not only experiencing the same thing, but they can relate to you.”

Wanda Cromer, the program’s facilitator, keeps track of the participating students’ grades. She meets one-on-one with any who are struggling academically.

“We talk about study skills, time management, how you talk to a professor,” Cromer says. “These are things most college freshmen don’t do well. So, they’re not unique in that regard. But they are dealing with an added layer, when you look at the cultural issue, and perhaps they’ve had previous experiences where they have been talked down to because of their culture.”

Hernandez-Laroche says the camaraderie that’s developed is perhaps the most powerful outcome. The program also allows students to build relationships with several faculty members, people who can recommend them for leadership roles on campus, Waldrop says.

“The focus on Avanzando Through College is advancing to become future lideres. Leaders. And Maria and I, we’re emphasizing the why: Our communities need your voice,” Hernandez-Laroche says. “If you don’t see professors who look like you … you’re going to fall through the cracks.”