Latino College Groups Play Critical Role On Campuses

Julie Rodriguez, center in purple, with members of Eastern’s OLAS (Organization of Latin American Students) student club at awards Cesar Chavez Awards ceremony last April. Rodriguez is the granddaughter of Chavez. (ECSU photo)
Julie Rodriguez, center in purple, with members of Eastern’s OLAS (Organization of Latin American Students) student club at awards Cesar Chavez Awards ceremony last April. Rodriguez is the granddaughter of Chavez. (ECSU photo)

Bill Sarno
They offer salsa classes to foster awareness of their culture and hold forums on immigration to help their members, but Latino student organizations at many of the state’s college and universities have also have embraced and have done well in a new role, that of a game changer in helping raise the historically low Hispanic/Latino graduation rate.
This new role for these campus groups is critical as more Latinos attend two- and four-year colleges, and there is greater recognition that their education is intertwined with the nation’s future.
At Eastern Connecticut State University, which has earned national accolades for its success in graduating Latino students, the Organization of Latin American Students is seen by administrators as indispensable in helping keep Latinos on track to obtain degrees.
Members of OLAS “play a major role in retention,” said school President Elsa Nunez.
Approximately one out of eight students at the Willimantic liberal arts school is Latino, and in many cases, they are the first in their family to attend college or may be under-prepared for what lies ahead.
Students may arrive at the Willimantic campus “a bit tentative,” Nunez said, but thanks to OLAS and its members,  by their senior year they are not only well acclimated, but also are helping freshman make the transition to college.
“The younger students respect them,” the college president said, of the OLAS members. “It helps to see successful people like themselves develop into leaders,” she said.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit educational advocacy organization, in 2012 ranked ECSU No. 1 nationally in a study of the 6-year graduation rate for Hispanics in public universities and colleges. Moreover, the graduation rate for students entering this state university in 2004, 57.8 percent, was  higher than for the overall enrollment.
Another campus where Latino student groups are making a difference is the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
At UConn, the base for Latino-oriented programs is the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center. Located on the fourth floor of the Student Union, PRLACC contains a computer lab, film and book collections, offices and meeting spaces. It also is a great place to study for exams, said Gabriel Bachinelo, a senior who is one of several student associates staffing the center.
The center is home to the Latino Student Association and other student groups as well as METAS (Mentoring, Educating and Training for Academic Success). There is still a lot of social, cultural and even political activism, but this has been augmented by the organization’s role in helping Latino students acclimate themselves to campus life and their academic responsibilities.
“For first-year and transfer students, the mentors serve as a “resource, a friend, a guide,” said Bachinelo, who is one of several dozen METAS participants.
A 2012 report in the university publication UConn Today cited the efforts of PRLACC and METAS in improved Hispanic enrollment and retention figures. At that time, the Latino enrollment had tripled to about 6 percent in less than 25 years and the graduation rate was about 75 percent. This trend has continued with the Hispanic/Latino graduation rate of about 80 percent and enrollment about 7.75 percent, according to the 2015 Forbes magazine survey of U.S. colleges.
Nationally, the graduation rate for Latinos was about 39 percent as compared to nearly 50 percent for white students, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Excelencia in Education, a Latino higher education advocacy organization, reports that  an even wider gap exists in Connecticut, with the Hispanic graduation rate about 33 percent, 22 points below that for the white population.
Latino campus associations generally do not follow a set formula in how they address issues, such as retention and inclusion of Latinos in  the college community. The variations reflect study body demographics, the growing diversity of the Latino population and whether many students live on campus, as is the case at Trinity College in Hartford and UConn, or commute, the situation at nearby Capital Community College.
Trinity College, a private institution, boasts a Latino/Hispanic graduation rate that exceeds 90 percent, according to the 2015 Forbes survey of U.S. colleges. One factor may be the school’s highly selective admissions status, but once on campus Latino students also benefit from the work of an active student association, La Voz Latina, to smooth their transition to college life.
“If they need help, we are there,” said Paola Otero, a sophomore who is secretary of LVL.
La Voz Latina’s activities fall into three different areas, educational, social and community, said Otero, who is of Dominican descent and comes from Massachusetts.
Its other programs are designed to bring attention to social and political issues, as well as raising the awareness of Latino culture on the mostly white campus.  In addition to participating in the social life at the private college, holding dances and other cultural programs, LVL also sponsors a Salsarengue, Otero said.  It’s a festival of Latino food, music and dancing, which usually attracts a good turnout, she noted.
Capital Community College, located in downtown Hartford, has the largest percentage of Latino students among the state’s higher education institutions.  Its Latino organization is the Latino American Student Association, which was originally the Hispanic Student Association, and whose founders in 1976 included Pedro Segarra, who later served as mayor of Hartford.
Among the primary purposes of LASA is to promote Hispanic culture and provide members with leadership opportunities, said Jeannette Rivera, the club’s advisor and sponsor. Members look forward to attending the annual New England Latino Student Leadership Conference.
LASA is one of the most active clubs at Capital, Rivera said. These activities include salsa classes, a Latin film festival, and luncheons focusing on issues such as immigration rights. There also is a Latin Heritage Festival each fall and participation in the city’s annual Puerto Rican Parade.
The Latin American Student Organization at Central Connecticut State University, LASO (originally named SLAC, Sociedad Latina Americana de Central), was also started in the 1970s and its membership had been predominantly Puerto Rican. However, now a wide variety of ethnic groups are represented in LASO, said Freddie Rio, who is the club’s treasurer and of Peruvian descent.
LASO has an office in the Student Union, which provides a place for students, many of whom are commuters, to gather. This area is shared with another largely Latino group, the Central Organization for Latin American Dance Awareness.
Maintaining visibility on the New Britain campus, LASO organizes events such as an annual dinner and a Valentine’s Day program that focused on domestic violence and fostering healthy relationships, Rios said. There also are fund-raising activities to support the club’s programs and underwrite attendance at conferences, he noted.
At UConn, the increased enrollment of students from different national backgrounds, particularly Peruvians, has been reflected recently in the emergence of new student associations. These subgroups exist for Colombians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans, said Bachinelo, whose background is Bolivian.
Western Connecticut State University in Danbury has an active LASO chapter and one of its roles is helping the many Latinos who are commuters tie into campus life.
Latino student organizations also serve a  bonding function, as well as  develop long-term relationships.
At ECSU, OLAS members Thursday night dinners prepared by one of their advisors, Margaret Letterman. “Here, they talk, eat and break bread together,” Nunez said.
As the Latino students get to know each other a whole network forms, said the university president. “These people stay connected,” she said.