As the heat rose with the early Virginia morning sun, so did the anticipation of volunteers hoping to relive an experience that once changed their lives.
“I can’t wait ‘til they get here,” said one orange-teed volunteer to another as they milled around the empty Whiting residence hall at Virginia State University. Dozens of peppy college students, identified by their orange-colored name badges and infectious energy, were ready to impart the same wisdom that made a higher education possible for them.
“You can really feel the energy in here,” said Frank Hernandez, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering major in his senior year, never once breaking his smile.
Then the rumble of a rear-engine, diesel-fueled locomotive unsealed the intensity, and cheering ensued almost on cue. The kids had arrived.
“Welcome to the 2010 HYS!”
The Hispanic Youth Symposium (HYS) is a live-in learning experience for Latino high school students aimed at motivating them to pursue higher education. Hispanic sophomores and juniors with at least a 2.5 GPA apply to spend four days on college campuses attending career workshops, listening to inspirational talks, sharing with mentors, and learning the ins and outs of the college application process. Some of them earn scholarships to get them started on the path to postsecondary progress.
But, most importantly, organizers said, students confront feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness that prevent many from pursuing their potential.
“Some kids think this is just going to be an academic camp where they get tips for college,” said Latino comedian Ernie G (Gritzewsky) who has opened 14 symposiums with his “inspirational comedy.”
“But this is an experience that will fundamentally shift who they are and what they will become,” he added.
In eight different sites across the country—including Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles—the Hispanic College Fund (HCF) holds annual symposiums throughout the summer hoping to capture the imagination of a population of students with one of the worst high school graduation rates in the nation.
In Virginia, where 8 percent of public school students are of Hispanic origin, HYS has held seven symposiums in past years, but this is the first time an Historically Black college or university (HBCU) hosted the event, said program director Daniel Sarmiento.
VSU’s new business school dean Dr. Mirta Martin, a Cuban-American, brought the program to the campus located just south of Richmond. The school offered its facilities virtually for free, Sarmiento said, allowing HYS to double the number of participants.
Dr. Martin is a firecracker of a woman, skipping around as the gracious hostess welcoming the students and switching between Spanish and English frantically. Virginia’s first Latina dean has plans for her university, which prides itself on serving underrepresented students.
“The values of African-Americans and Latinos are the same. Our strengths and weaknesses are similar. We both embrace our cultural heritage and families,” she said. “If we want to double our student population, it has to be through the fastest growing group in the state.”
Using her growing influence, Dr. Martin is determined to make VSU the first Hispanic-serving HBCU in the country with a plan to bring in cohorts of Hispanic students onto the campus gradually.
“It’s a dream, but dreams can become a reality,” she said.
For so many of the teenagers, college is just a fuzzy mirage that hasn’t come into focus yet, Sarmiento said. They arrived with reserved facial expressions, clutching to their safety blankets and pillows, distrustful and uncertain. Some were forced, others were curious, but all of them sought something.
Bombarded with the enthusiasm of their high-fiving resident assistants (RAs), the students’ hard faces began to smooth out. Hernandez, noting the guise of 17-year-old Jose Martinez’s scowl, attempted to extract the smile creeping up from the corners of his lips.
“What’s your name, man?” Hernandez asked as he approached the Richmond rising high school junior wearing a long striped polo shirt a size too big. “Where you from?” Hernandez patted the kid’s back and looked him in the eye: “Believe me, you are going to love this.”
In those faces, the RAs see themselves: students from their same neighborhoods, students with dreams that seem unlikely in their current reality. The volunteers, they say, have one purpose, to offer a space where kids can share their intimate struggles and offer unconditional love.
Yesenia Villalta, a 23-year-old volunteer, is responsible for leading a “familia,” an assigned group of students who live together throughout the week. But she is responsible for more than their safety. Villalta said she is passionate about preventing the hardships that sullied her own experience.
“I didn’t even know what transcripts were until I was in junior high school,” Villalta said, who is a native of Northern Virginia. When a guidance counselor told her colleges look at the records, she panicked because as a freshman she traded grades for fun, oblivious to the consequences.
Villalta fought her way to community college but encountered counselors who accused her of wanting “handouts,” as she sought information to transfer to a university and complete her degree in social work. Her circumstances discouraged her when she saw close friends become young mothers and forget about school.
Though her path was marred by misinformation and delayed by ignorance—her parents refused to give their social security number for financial aid forms—the first-generation college student is taking classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Had she known what it took to go to college, Villalta said, and received support: “Who’s to say I could’ve gotten a scholarship to a four-year university and my parents would’ve been educated earlier.”
Whether it’s clueless parents, low self-esteem, finances or the lack of community support, HYS participants grind against difficult odds and ubiquitous statistics: nearly one in every two Latino high school students drops out.
At lunch Wednesday, Sarmiento said they encourage students to describe their experiences: “I’ve had students share heart-wrenching stories once they realize they are in a safe space to talk about their fears.”
As he ate, a student approached the table with a secret that tore his face with shame. But with a composure alien to his age, the 15-year-old let go of a fear that had scarred him so long that it made higher education irrelevant. He is undocumented.
Sarmiento took him aside, advising a young man on the brink of emotional rupture.
“The program is a tear-fest by the end,” Sarmiento said, but HYS enjoys positive outcomes. In their annual survey of HYS alumni, nine in 10 participants eventually enroll in college after graduation.
“They come here as one kind of student and leave a completely different kid,” Ernie G said, who closed the day with a comedy sketch. “I know God put me on this Earth to do this.”