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Benefactors of the University of South Florida Latino Scholarship Program support students in more ways than one.

Tampa, Fla., restaurateur Richard Gonzmart says his donation to the University of South Florida Latino Scholarship Program (LSP) honors his parents and grandparents who placed a high value on education. But Gonzmart didn’t realize just how significant his gift was until a scholarship recipient paid him a visit three years after graduating from USF and becoming an electrical engineer.

“He said, ‘Thank you so much for the opportunity. When I was a senior in high school, I was wondering what field I’d pick tomatoes and fruit from,'” Gonzmart recalls. “That had the biggest impact on me. Seeing a bright young man given an opportunity, and he took advantage of it and made something of himself.”

Gonzmart met his charge through the LSP, now in its 17th year. It was started by the Latin Community Advisory Committee to the USF president to attract Hispanic students to the school. The committee didn’t want to just provide financial assistance; it also wanted benefactors to mentor scholarship recipients.

“With that goal, the student would benefit from the money and guidance from professionals and have contact with sponsors in their area of interest that they wanted to pursue,” says Patsy Feliciano, who took the reins as the scholarship program director in 2001.

“To have someone serve as their mentor and share with them the things they’d gone through helps students through the (academic) process.”

Gonzmart, an early program donor and owner of the historic Columbia Restaurant that provided $100,000 this year, says that while he appreciates the ability to be financially generous, he’s most fulfilled by the personal rapport he’s able to develop with scholarship recipients.

One student went to study biology and was getting intimidated. Another one was focusing on accounting and didn’t like it, so he thought he was a failure, Gonzmart says. “I told them there will be challenges, and they may fail, but that opportunity is theirs. That’s how you learn, from failure.”

In addition to Columbia Restaurant’s donation this year for the LSP’s Centenario Endowment Scholarship, which is eligible for a 50 percent state match, the Helios Education Foundation, the largest education nonprofit organization in Arizona and Florida, awarded the program $1.25 million.

Corporate donors include OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC, Wachovia Bank and Univision. Since the program’s inception in 1991, $1.6 million has been awarded to students. The program has a 90 percent retention and graduation rate, boasting 245 alumni.

Motivating Factors

The money and mentorship afforded through the LSP helped Javier Rosado fulfill his dream of pursuing an academic career that he believed was out of reach. The 27- year-old is currently a resident at Florida State University’s Health Center in Immokalee, Fla. He just graduated from FSU with a doctorate in counseling psychology and human systems.

Private donors, a retired couple from Tampa funded Rosado’s education at USF.

“We had lunch dates throughout every semester,” he says. “I loved it. They really inspired me; they encouraged me. The best thing they did for me was believe in me and tell me that I could do it.”

The encouragement extended beyond academics. Rosado had always wanted to travel to Africa to volunteer for a cause. His sponsors had visited Africa for work and shared their experiences with him. Rosado signed up with a charitable organization that organized community assistance projects in Africa and spent a summer teaching sex education and HIV awareness to high school students there.

“Honestly, I think the biggest obstacle was me. The mentality of thinking that it wasn’t possible for me to go,” Rosado says. “Once I knew (the sponsor) had done work there as well, that made it seem a little more possible.”

The mentorship relationship isn’t meant to replace the love and guidance of parents, but to supplement their support, says program director Feliciano.

“Parents have instilled the importance of going to college, but the very same parents never went to college here or to college at all. Many of them didn’t graduate from high school. And as much as they want their children to succeed, many don’t know how to help them or where to turn for information,” Feliciano says.

A scholarship ceremony held annually in August introduces scholarship recipients and their families to their donors. The relationship starts there and can last well beyond a student’s time at USF.

The possible scholarship pool includes bilingual students fluent in English and Spanish who are involved in the Hispanic community and who apply for financial aid and are eligible for a Pell Grant. Based on financial need and academic merit, students are interviewed over the phone, then face-to-face by a scholarship committee made up of faculty members, administrative staff, a student representative and/or alumni representative. The scholarship supplements the financial aid students receive and can range from $1,000 a year to $4,000. This past year, 75 students were interviewed by phone, 60 were interviewed face-to-face and 51 were selected to receive scholarships starting this academic year.

Currently 119 scholarship students are enrolled in the university in a variety of majors. Support comes full circle, with alumna like Ana Alvarez. As a former scholarship recipient, Alvarez spoke at this year’s ceremony two months ago. A bilingual school psychologist for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, she is a first-generation American born to Cuban parents and the first in her family to graduate from college.

Alvarez says the program makes students accountable to themselves and to the donors.

“I couldn’t let them down, Alvarez, 25, says of her sponsors, the Tampa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Having contact with (the members) a personal relationship with people really motivated me to do my best and make them proud.”

Yosvel Blanco’s sponsors are already proud of him, even though Blanco just started at USF this semester. The Cuban-born Blanco, 24, wanted to follow in his mother’s footsteps to become a dentist, but ended up studying computer science.

Having immigrated to America three years ago, a new country meant a new chance for Blanco to pursue his true calling. With the help of the LSP and his sponsors, the Krewe of the Knights of SantYago, Blanco is now a pre-med and psychology student. “I’m not getting too much financial aid, so this helps me a lot,” Blanco says.

The Krewe of the Knights of SantYago, a private Tampa organization dedicated to preserving Latin culture and fellowship, donated $100,000 to the LSP through its education foundation this year. The Krewe has supported the scholarship program since 1994, and currently sponsors six students, including Blanco.

“These kids are so unbelievably opportunistic when they get (the scholarship) and they work hard. I just love them,” says Dr. O. Rex Damron, president of the Krewe of SantYago Education Foundation.”We tell kids if you have a problem, come see us and we’ll help you get through it.”

Blanco and his family met some members of the Krewe at the awards ceremony before the semester began. He says the mentorship and the motivation began with the first handshake. “I’m going to tell them how I’m doing, and someone else is going to be interested in what I’m doing. If I’m getting a bad grade or not doing good, I’m not going to be too proud to tell them,” Blanco says.

Blanco transferred into USF as a junior, after attending community college. He says the scholarship gives him several options. “If I don’t get accepted into dental school, I can go to medical school or a psychology program. If not plan A, then plan B or plan C,” Blanco says.

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