Created in 2005 by Excelencia in Education, Examples of Excelencia is a national initiative that recognizes institutions and nonprofit organizations that identify, aggregate, and promote evidence-based practices that improve Latinx student success in higher education. The four entities recognized this year span a diverse geographic area, but they share the mission of uplifting their communities while also creating a broader impact in terms of education and the workforce. Those entities are in the following categories: associate level, baccalaureate level, graduate level, and community-based organization. Following is a profile of the institution recognized as an Example of Excelencia for a community-based organization: Post-Secondary Initiatives at Esperanza, Inc.
Founded in 1983, the mission of Esperanza is to improve the academic achievement of Hispanics in Greater Cleveland, Ohio, by supporting students to graduate high school and promoting postsecondary educational attainment. Each year, Esperanza grants about 100 scholarships to students entering or continuing their college education.
“We work with students in the community who are attending the high schools here to ensure that residents in Cuyahoga County are able to be identified and proceed through the application process,” says Germaine Peña, manager of Post-Secondary Initiatives and a former scholarship recipient.
Each year, the recipients renew their scholarships to ensure that they continue to receive a variety of supports, such as case management, until graduation. If a student has a low grade point average or is dealing with mental health challenges, Esperanza will intervene.
In 2016, Esperanza launched a college mentoring program to assist its scholarship recipients in working toward successful college completion. Each mentee commits to meeting with a mentor for at least 30 minutes per month for 12 months. Prior to the pandemic, these meetings were in person at the Esperanza offices, but are now largely virtual and have expanded to include scholarship recipients attending school anywhere in the U.S. There are also internship initiatives.
“We realized that in order to ensure that they graduate from postsecondary and transition into rewarding careers while at the same time also meeting the hiring and employee needs of our corporate partners, we needed to create more of a program to create that pipeline and help students get the scholarship, graduate from college and pursue some sort of internship or career opportunity,” says Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza.
“The strength is even in the title; they come from the community,” says Santiago. “In many ways, they have the trust of the families, the parents, and the students in this space, and they have some linkage to the resources supporting community needs. The trust to be able to provide services and connection that’s authentic and culturally responsive, that’s where community-based organizations can step in in a robust way. That trust is not to be underestimated when you’ve got vulnerable populations that historically have not been served well.”
The platform MentorCliq facilitates communication between mentors and mentees as well as with Esperanza staff. Each month, the mentors and mentees receive a prompt to emphasize important educational issues and make the students aware of internships.
Post-Secondary Initiatives leverages relationships and communicates regularly, says Peña. “We are working with them to ensure that the mentors are as close as possible to the area of profession that the student is aiming to be a part of,” Peña says. “We make sure they receive the necessary information, not only from the mentor but also from the mentor’s network so they receive as much information as possible.”
The Lideres Avanzando program supports first-generation Latinx students in their first and second years of college and helps them navigate the complexities of higher education. Not only do participants receive support services from Esperanza, but they are shown how to access supports from their colleges and universities. There are workshops, events, and relevant student support services in areas like study skills, mental health, and financial aid. Students who successfully complete the program receive a $400 stipend.
“For Lideres Avanzando, we are recruiting students not only from our local colleges and universities here in our area, but most recently during the pandemic we were able to expand our program’s reach to also serve students nationwide because we moved everything onto a virtual platform,” says Peña.
Esperanza has strong ties with two-year and four-year institutions in the Cleveland area. It serves as an access center for the local community college, which means program participants may begin their post-secondary education at Esperanza’s center and then transition onto campus. Peña has also started creating cohorts at specific universities, including Case Western Reserve University, which provides Latinx students additional supports on that campus.
“One thing we know about the Hispanic community is that education is a core value,” says Ruiz. “Another core value is family. Those are two intrinsic motivations. … What we’re trying to do is connect them to the opportunities that are here, so they can rebuild our community.”