PETERSBURG, Va. – Among the 80 Virginia high school students that participated in the Hispanic College Institute at Virginia State University (VSU), Monica Negron found plenty of encouragement during the institute for the college plans she nurtures as a rising high school senior.
“I have to go to college and make something of myself. I have to show [my siblings] that people are going to tell you ‘no’, but that doesn’t have to keep you down,” Negron said.
For Negron and the others, faculty and administrators at Virginia State, a historically Black university in Petersburg, Va., along with volunteers and Latino professionals, sought to make college life appear to be a natural and inevitable destination for these ambitious students.
“This is an inspirational institution, this is a motivational institution, this is a confidence-building institution, [and] this is a life-changing institution,” said Dr. Mirta Martin, the Hispanic College Institute chair and the VSU School of Business dean.
Coordinated this year by the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network (VALHEN), this annual program prepares Hispanic students to enter and succeed in higher education. In order to apply for the HCI, students must have a GPA of 2.5 or above and be a rising junior or senior at a Virginia high school. In the past, the program has been run by the Hispanic College Fund (HCF), but because of a lack of funding, HCF had to back out of running the 2012 program.
VALHEN, however, stepped up and coordinated the program. Because of generous sponsors, an all-volunteer staff, and room and board provided by VSU, the program was free for every student.
Dr. Keith Miller, VSU President, explained that, although Virginia State is an HBCU, he wanted to support HCI because “we need to encourage all people to further their education.”
“It is incumbent upon us to actually provide opportunities to young people,” he said.
The students, including this year’s cohort, have come from a mix of backgrounds and have different motivations for attending HCI. Negron explained that she comes from a family of four boys and divorced parents. Her oldest brother just graduated from high school, but doesn’t plan on attending college.
“I’m the one that has to set the example for the younger ones and to do that,” she said.
Others, such as Tony Arvizu, are attending to obtain more than educational and professional advice. “I live in a place without many Hispanic people and I thought more experience around Hispanic people and knowing about where I’m from would help me discover who I am,” he said.
One theme among this year’s HCI cohort that organizers sought hard to address was the lack of conviction as future college students. Martin explained that, at the beginning of the program, the students filled out a survey. More than 90 percent of students responded “No” to the question, “Do you believe you can go to college?”
Martin said that, without her grandmother and her mentors, she doubts she would be where she is today.
“However, many of these HCI students don’t have that. These children need an advocate. They need someone to open doors for them so they can go through,” she said.
Martin explained that she immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba not knowing a word of English. In addition to going to school, she had to work a full-time job to put food on the table. Her grandmother, who had a Ph.D., insisted that Martin attend college.
During the program, the students participated in a variety of workshops geared towards guiding the students through the college application process, attended inspirational speeches, and met and networked with Hispanic leaders and role models.
Accordingly, HCI is designed to provide not only guidance directly related to the college application process, but also inspire confidence and hope in the students that might not have it. Ernie G (Gritzewsky), “Empowerment Comedian” and national spokesperson for HCF, explained that more than just educational and professional development, the program is “about discovering ‘familia’, discovering they’re a part of a beautiful family and network of Latinos here in Virginia.”
According to past years’ student surveys, the most popular program has been the “Hispanic Heroes” workshop. The students are given an opportunity to ask questions, share stories, and network with more than 20 Hispanic professionals in a casual and personal environment.
“This is our way of giving back. We give someone they can relate to. It’s hard to know what you can achieve if you don’t see what’s doable,” said “Hispanic Hero” Debbie Martinez, deputy manager of the Aviation Safety Program at NASA Langley Research Center.
Fellow Hispanic Hero J.A. Rodriguez Jr., CEO and founder of MMD Strategies, added that “you can look in the eyes of the students and see the hope that we bring to them. We can empower them to be able to do more than they believe they can do themselves. It makes me feel empowered myself to have this power to empower.”
Although HCI only runs over three days, the results appear to be profound. At the closing ceremony, students can go on stage and explain what the program has done for them. Ernie G said, “They come in having forgotten how great they are and they leave with this powerful, renewed sense of how amazing they are.”