When Hattie Beauchamp was a young Latina growing up in Waterbury her mother gave her a plaque that reads “Climb Until Your Dream Comes True.” The plaque has remained with her, providing inspiration while she earned several college degrees, raised a family and served more than 35 years as an educator and role model to Hispanics in her hometown.
Climbing the ladder of success for Beauchamp, now a retiree living in Florida, and many other Latinos in Connecticut has not been easy because some rungs have been a bit shaky or even missing.
Too often, Latino students have had to surmount financial obstacles along with gender and ethnic stereotypes, as well as emerge from education settings that did not recognize their potential, ambitions and dreams. In many cases, counselors and teachers shunted these students down the wrong track or were just happy to get them through high school.
Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, there were few role models for Latinos in schools. Beauchamp recalled there were no Hispanic teachers at Kennedy High School. Consequently, the proportion of Latinos age 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree was only 14 percent three years ago, or less than half the national average, according to the Pew Research Center.
This situation is changing significantly and quite quickly.
Nationally, Latino college attendance has tripled from 1993 to 2013, and now exceeds 2.2 million students. Studying the high school class of 2012, the Pew Research Center found that 69 percent of the Latinos went to college, compared to 67 percent of the white population.
But for Beauchamp and countless others, as well as for those in later generations, the prospects for a Latino attending a four-year college were a long shot. Without guidance or a support system, they had to believe in themselves in order to persevere.
Isaias Diaz, who today is an attorney, community leader and serves on the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, recalls his days at Wilby High, also in Waterbury.
During his high school years, Diaz did not find the encouragement or receive the guidance that would get him to college. “People were not really groomed for college; the focus was on getting them to graduate,” he said.
Moreover, like many Hispanics, the Waterbury resident needed to focus on obtaining the basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing, which did not leave much time “for a lot of other things” like seeking higher education.
However, while working in lower level jobs, he realized he needed to do something more, and that meant going to college. “I bit the bullet,” he recalled, adding that it was tough, attending college, being active in his church and working to make a living. “I was trying to get A’s to qualify for scholarships,” he recalled.
Diaz went from Naugatuck Valley College to Teikyo Post University, now Post University, in Waterbury, graduating with a 3.75 grade point average, nearly all A’s, and then attended Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden where he received his law degree in 2007.
As Diaz was beginning his career as an attorney, Hattie Beauchamp was in the final years of her long stint at various levels in the Waterbury public schools. Born in New York City, Beauchamp came to Waterbury at the age of 12 and grew up in a typical Puerto Rican family. There was not much money but a lot of encouragement to do what she wanted, to climb toward her dream.
Beauchamp, one of only three Hispanics attending Kennedy High School and the only Latina, was channeled into the business curriculum so she could find a job after graduation. The retired educator recalls that at the time many Hispanic females quit school after eighth grade to get jobs to help their families.
However, Hattie also had a close friend who was a freshman at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The friend suggested, “Hattie apply.” She followed this advice and with the help of a worker at local Hispanic community agency, who sat down with her mother to explain what was needed, applied for a special program CCSU had launched to attract more minority students.
Hattie began her college experience shortly after her high school graduation, attending the EOP (Educational Opportunity Program), a summer session designed to prepare her and others with similar backgrounds for what was ahead.
Her initial plan was to study business at CCSU and during the first year took courses that would lead to a degree in the field. It was a struggle, she said, but she survived with the help of the study centers the school set up for minority students.
Entering her second year, she discovered she had a passion for teaching and eventually graduated with certification to teach English as a Second Language. Waterbury had a need for bilingual teachers, so that is where she launched her career. Eventually, she went to Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven to obtain a second bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and then a master’s degree in elementary and bilingual education. She also has a six-year certificate in school administration.
As a Hispanic, Beauchamp said, she sensed there “were a lot of eyes watching her to see if she would do a terrible job” as a house principal. However, she said she always gave her profession “150 percent” and earned professional respect.
Beauchamp’s achievements enabled her to also serve as a role model for other Hispanics. Her message to students has been: “If you have a passion, as long as you are motivated, you can do anything.”
One of the people Beauchamp guided and helped is Sandy Vargas. A childhood illness took Vargas out of school for several years, and because she was constantly playing catch up, the guidance department looked at her as “learning disabled,” she recalled. However, she was fortunate to have the support of her parents and a special education teacher who did not support the guidance counselors’ assumption.
Vargas had a sister attending CCSU and that is where she wanted to go. She submitted her application for the school’s EOP program through her school’s guidance counselor on time and awaited a reply. None arrived and the high school senior became anxious.
When Vargas contacted CCSU, she learned Crosby High School had not forwarded her application and academic transcript. She descended on the guidance office and learned that her counselor had not submitted her application and had deposited it in a file cabinet. The explanation, she recalled, was the counselor thought she was not four-year college material and should enroll at Naugatuck Valley Community College, a two-year program.
While Latinos are more likely to enter higher education via community colleges than white students, for Vargas being cast as a community college candidate was a temporary setback in her quest to study at CCSU. The time frame for applying for the EOP had lapsed but one her teachers submitted a recommendation letter and Hatti Beauchamp also was very helpful, making calls on her behalf when she found out what the guidance counselor had done, Vargas recalls.
The Waterbury Latina graduated with a degree in social work and then, a few years later, commuted to Springfield College as a part-time graduate student and earned a master’s degree. Today, she still lives in Waterbury and is a counselor at the Family Intervention Center in that city.
Like Hattie Beauchamp, Vargas exemplified that as a Hispanic often “you have to work harder” as well as to break through stereotypes. However, when this type of obstacle exists, she added, “Don’t let it ruin your future.”
A major dividend of these proactive approaches, as well as the individual perseverance of Latinos like Isaias Diaz, Sandy Vargas and Hattie Beauchamp, is the emergence of an extensive cadre of role models in fields like law and politics, and especially in education.
This category also includes Anabelle Diaz, who noted that. “While at middle school in Hartford, I was encouraged not to attend a comprehensive high school, but go to a tech school instead because I would be better off in a vocational high school,” she said.
She enrolled at A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford 20 years ago intending to study hairdressing and cosmetology, but also found she loved education and was encouraged by teachers to attend college.
Today, she is a vice principal at Prince Tech and a doctoral degree candidate.
She also serves as a role model to the schools many Latino students, providing a visible example of how Latinos like herself can succeed in higher education and beyond. What she recommends to students who see “someone like me” in an influential position is that they also can achieve success with perseverance and a commitment to learning.
Isaias Diaz also volunteers as a counselor “wherever he finds people who need help” and suggests that to encourage more Hispanics go to college there needs to be more grooming of students for higher education and more mentors available.
He also suggests that the Hispanic community needs to emphasize education more. He acknowledges that the need to obtain the basic necessities for survival is the obvious first concern, but students also have to focus on getting good grades.
Vargas sees a need for more mentors, more services within the schools and role models.
Also, Vargas said, students need to advocate more for themselves. “They need to get people who support them involved,” she said. In her case, it was a teacher who recognized her potential and the support of Hattie Beauchamp that made a difference. “That sealed the deal,” Vargas said.