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New retention program helps Cleveland’s first-generation Hispanic college students hear the words, “Congratulations, graduate!”

04.03.2018

Going to college can be tough for anyone. Now imagine being the first person in your family to do it, and at a place with a different culture and customs thousands of miles from home. Oh, and the classes are taught in a foreign language. That’s the situation in which many first-generation Hispanic Clevelanders find themselves.

“We have students who excel in high school, but when they go to college with students from all over, they often become intimidated and lose confidence due to language barriers, or because they don’t have family members who have been through the college process,” said Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza, - "hope" in Spanish - Cleveland’s nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of Hispanic educational achievement.

But a program called Líderes Avanzando (Leaders Advancing) seeks to change that, and turn the tide on some troubling Hispanic college graduation statistics. While the share of Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in post-secondary education increased from 13 percent to 37 percent between 1972 and 2012, their graduation rates are not so rosy, with Hispanics more than a third less likely than their peers to finish with a degree.

Líderes, which is funded by a grant from KeyBank Foundation, helps students understand the higher education system and gives them the skills and support needed to graduate with a college degree within a reasonable timeframe, fewer than six years.

Luz Rodriguez, 19, credits the program with putting her on a path to graduate with an associate’s degree from Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) and then transfer to Cleveland State University for a bachelor’s degree.

Rodriguez and her family moved to Cleveland from Puerto Rico in 2014, because her parents were unable to make a sustainable living there, despite her father working long hours as a truck driver and her mother working at a restaurant.

Rodriguez enrolled in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s International Newcomers Academy, which is designed for recent immigrants from other countries and Puerto Rico and includes English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. While it was a struggle at first, Rodriquez went on to graduate as valedictorian of her class.

Going to college was a different story, however. While several of her high school classmates enrolled in ESL courses at Tri-C, Rodriguez’ English skills were too good at that point, so she had to enroll in classes taught in English. She was on her own.

“It was difficult because I didn’t know anyone, and everyone else was English as a first language and I was afraid I wouldn’t do well,” Rodriguez said. “I was also afraid to talk in class because my English wasn’t that good.”

Rodriguez risked falling behind, but Líderes helped her turn the corner. She participated in a series of five monthly group workshops over the course of a semester on a variety of topics, including relationship building with peers and professors.

“They taught me how important it is to be in communication with my professors,” Rodriguez said. “I was really shy but they said it was really important, so I had to learn to go by myself and talk to professors if I didn’t understand something. It was intimidating but I did it and it really helped.”

“Cleveland helped me when I needed it most and I want to give back, especially give back to the Hispanic community,” said Rodriguez. “I feel passionate about it and I’m happy to be able to study for this so I can give back.”

Rodriguez already is giving back, through an internship at the Spanish American Committee where a lot of her work these days centers on helping Puerto Ricans seeking a new life in Cleveland after their homes were destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

Rodriguez and her family likely will serve as an inspiration to these newcomers. Her father got a job at a trucking company shortly after arriving in Cleveland in 2014, and then started his own transportation business and bought a house for his family. And now, his daughter Luz is on track to become a college graduate thanks in part to Líderes Avanzando.

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