Hispanic Center of Western Michigan helping Latino youth get to college

Empowering Latino youth is often easier said than done. However, there are programs nationwide that may go under the radar but are having dramatic results.…

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Hispanic Center of Western Michigan helping Latino youth get to college

Latino High School graduates in Michigan. Hispanic Center of Western Michigan has been helping Latinos get to college. (Candy Apel, LLC)

Empowering Latino youth is often easier said than done. However, there are programs nationwide that may go under the radar but are having dramatic results.

Excelencia in Education, which boasts a mission to create a national platform promoting institutions of higher education of note, recently released its 2014 edition of “What Works for Latino Students in Higher Education Compendium.”

The report highlights the community-based organization work of Hispanic Center of Western Michigan’s Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) Youth Program, which provides after-school tutoring, leadership development, college preparation activities, college visits, fieldtrips, service projects, parent engagement activities and summer programming.

“For our families and students, it’s really the only place for them to go to meet with people who are bilingual and culturally competent,” Hispanic Center of Western Michigan Director of Youth & Parent Services Rachel Lopez told VOXXI. “We understand their specific needs and the barriers they face.

SEE ALSO: Hispanic students influential in record low dropout rates

“We work with high school ages, 14 to 21, and so a lot of what we hear is they want to go to college, they want to finish school but they have no idea how to start, save money or get financial aid. They have a deep desire to go but they just have no idea where to begin the process, so that’s where we pick up.”

Created in 1978 and currently funded through local, state and federal grants, SOL is the only Latino youth program in Kent County, Michigan, where 76 percent of the population is Latino and 63 percent have less than a high school diploma.

In addition to higher education assistance, SOL also has structured programming such as gang intervention services, summer learning academies, workforce development, paid work experiences, mentorship and intensive case management.

If there’s a quintessential story that epitomizes the American experience for many struggling Latinos, look no further than Irma Ramirez.

“It basically changed my life in the sense that I started off picking blueberries when I was 12 years old, and my parents kept telling me, ‘If you want to not work here then you need to get an education,’” said Ramirez, a former SOL student who is currently a Senior at Grand Valley State University.

“Well, it’s a lot easier said than done, and had I not had a support system like the SOL program or the staff here at the Hispanic Center, it would have been really, really hard.”

Added current SOL student and Grand Valley State University freshman Elton Alexander Reyes Hernandez, “It really has motivated me to strive for greatness. I want to be part of the change, I want to be better than the statistics, and I want to motivate other Latino students to get a college degree and realize the importance of education.”

SEE ALSO: Common Core standards may barely be helping Hispanic students

Among SOL’s students served, 85 percent are Latino. Over the past five years, the program has assisted more than 800 students, including 493 in 2013, with impressive results.

  • 93 percent completed the program.
  • The high school graduation rate of participating students is 89 percent. That’s compared to 42 percent of Hispanic students in Grand Rapids Public Schools and 64 percent in the state of Michigan.
  • More than 50 percent of graduating participants enrolled in post-secondary education. That’s compared to 42 percent of Grand Rapids Public Schools students.
  • 79 percent of SOL students that entered college returned the next year.

Looking ahead, Lopez said college attainment is SOL’s focus, which will begin with younger students.

“We want to do more on the retention piece and building that pipeline starting from younger ages bridging that to our high school programs and then following them through college,” Lopez said. “So our next step is to create a better pipeline.”