Shirley Acevedo Buontempo is the founder of Latino U College Access (LUCA), a social impact nonprofit organization that helps Latino families with access to college. Born in Puerto Rico, Shirley is a first-generation college graduate herself, making the issue of college access for Latino students very close to her heart.
Through LUCA, Shirley helps to achieve educational equity and opportunity for Latino youth and empowers low-income first-generation Latino students on their journeys to and through college so that they can fulfill their potential.
In the fouth installment of the National Leaders for Latinx Advancement Series, Latinas in Business President and CEO, Susana G Baumann, spoke to Shirley to discuss initiatives for the advancement of Latino students seeking higher education.
How the pandemic has disproportionately affected Latino college enrollment
The pandemic has created additional hurdles for Latino students, whose families and communities have been disproportionately impacted. For many Latino students, their parents were the frontline workers, restaurant workers, or employees who lost their jobs. As a result, many students that were thinking or planning to go to college have had to make a change in their plans.
According to LUCA, Latino enrollment in college and applications for financial aid has decreased in the last two years, dropping 20% in the fall of 2020 and about 6%, in the spring of 2021. Financial aid applications have gone down by 10% and Latino youth are not going to college at the same rates that they were prior to the pandemic. These setbacks are motivating LUCA to continue its efforts in helping Latino students advance in their pursuits for higher education.
LUCA initiative programs to guide first-generation students through college
To help students and their families through the challenging process of college applications and beyond, LUCA’s three pillars of programs create a long-term path where students are supported for six years with access to resources and advocates as they navigate their journey through college.
“When you’re first-gen, you have every desire and ambition to pursue your college education, but oftentimes you’re going through the process alone. Your families came to this country seeking an opportunity for themselves and for you, and as a first-gen student, you know that education is the path forward, especially here in America. However, when you’re first-gen, you don’t have the information, the resources, or the experience to understand and navigate this complex process of admissions and financial aid. And even once you get into college, you’re often feeling like you’re alone in that process. That’s why we stay with the students for this long period of time.”
LUCA’s Community Information Sessions is one of its programs that help families understand and navigate the college application process. These hour-long presentations are conducted completely in Spanish and are culturally relevant, covering important topics such as Pathways to College, Applying to College, and Paying for College, followed by Q&A time so that families can get as much information as possible.
“Since I launched the organization nine years ago, over 6000 parents and students have come to these presentations,” said Shirley. “When you welcome the Latino community in their language, and they know that this information was designed to be relevant to them, our families are thirsty for this and want this information.”
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The second pillar program LUCA offers is the Latino U Scholar program. This program provides intensive, one-on-one mentoring to students from the end of junior year through senior year of high school. To participate in this program, qualifying students are nominated by their guidance counselor to become a scholar in their junior year. Nominated students must demonstrate high academic potential with a 3.5 GPA or higher, be a low-income student, and demonstrate that they are the first in their family to go to college in the US.
“We do have a lot of families whose parents maybe were college graduates in their native country, be it in South America or in the Caribbean, but because they cannot transfer those degrees here to the US they’re working as taxi drivers or housekeepers. So their children are still considered first-generation. The scholar’s program gives students one-on-one support in every step of the process,” said Shirley.
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Finally, the third program LUCA offers is the First Gen Forward program, a success and career readiness program that supports students in the transition to college, adapting to college, and helping students remain in school so they graduate on time. The program provides mentorship and resources for first-generation students as they move through their four years of college. The program also helps students prepare for their future careers by providing resume writing workshops, interview prep, and matching students with internship opportunities.
LUCA’s methods have proved to be successful. By continuing to support Latino students long-term, students have had higher rates of success and 99% of LUCA students remain on track to graduate. That number is significant because nationally, only 46% of students remain in college among the Latino community.
“When you’re first-gen, getting into college is only the first half of the battle. Staying in college, graduating, and being ready for careers are the next stages. And many times, first-gen students will drop out of college in the first two years, not because of academics, but because of other social or financial issues. And so our goal is to make sure that our kids remain on track,” Shirley concluded.