Communidad y familia

As a young admissions officer at Moravian College, Josmell Perez within a few short years had helped the school exceed its diversity recruitment goals. In looking for his next step, he cast a wide net, which returned three offers: Princeton, Temple and Carolina.

Moving far from his New Jersey roots and tight-knit family would turn a career change into a challenge – and, then, an opportunity.

“When I first came to Carolina in 2007, I was looking for the kind of community I came from. Where were the people who hugged you hello, who, when you asked how they were doing knew that you were really interested in the details?” he said.

That community existed, but it took a while to find it. He wondered if Latina/o students on campus felt the same way.

Perez’s goal as multicultural programs coordinator is that no student at Carolina will have a “less-than” experience.

For the Latina/o heritage undergraduates he spoke with, it was a particular closeness of community that they craved. They needed a mentorship experience that would bring to campus something that had long been essential to their successes: family.

Forming a campus family

That’s what led to the development of Diversity and Multicultural AffairsLatina/o Peer Mentoring Program. LPMP seeks out first-year students who identify with Latina/o origin on their applications and offers them a familia (family) – not just a student or faculty mentor, but both, and then some.

Alumni, community members, staff members and other students create the kind of comfort zone that Perez said many students need to be academically successful when they first leave home.

The familias link together to create communidades (communities), which meet monthly to host professors for informal panels or provide information on campus resources. Faculty and staff have been eager to mentor or speak at communidad sessions, and Carolina alumni from across the country, and as far away as the Middle East, have signed up as virtual mentors, participating in Google Hangouts and sharing their email addresses for anyone who seeks their advice.

It’s the kind of program that would have benefited Natalie Borrego early on. Now a senior, she’s heavily involved in service organizations on campus, but her first year was a transition. From her own graduating class of 900 students in Miami, only a handful of students would be leaving home to study.

In Borrego’s community, coming home from school meant conversations and catching up with parents, siblings, aunts and cousins. For dinner, there was always more room at the table. She welcomed friends with open arms.

“It is just the culture within my community,” she said. “Education is very important, but strong ties to family mean it can be looked down upon to leave home. I needed to find that sense of community I was used to before I could even look at how I could connect to different resources on campus.”

As Borrego sought both the academic resources she needed to succeed and the relationships that would fulfill her, she found the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative (CLC), an office dedicated to developing a greater awareness of Latina/o issues, cultures and identities – and Perez, the diversity officer in charge.

“Students were coming up to both of us at the CLC, asking how a mentorship experience could be tailored for us,” she said. “What I was missing from my culture, and why it was hard to be away from home, is why we structured it this way. We decided to create an experience that comes from our perspective.”

It’s a popular perspective: a welcome session for LPMP this fall brought more students than the CLC office could fit. Emails seeking mentors and leaders for LPMP brought out faculty, staff, students, community members and alumni from both inside and outside the Latina/o community. Other campus groups contacted Perez to talk about the familia model.

“It was pretty stunning,” said Borrego. “This idea of creating a family really resonated with people and brought them together.”

‘A special kind of ripple’

Christina Villegas and Jackie Ceron check on each other just as they keep tabs on their siblings and cousins. They go out for meals, study, attend meetings and support each other in their campus activities. Villegas’ example has led Ceron to seek her own LPMP mentees for the fall.

Though Villegas is Ceron’s mentor, the relationship is mutually supportive.

“It’s not just me helping her find her way on campus, it’s reciprocal. We’re all looking out for each other,” said Villegas.

This kind of support – culturally and academically – can be critical to success, said Ron Strauss, Carolina’s executive vice provost and a professor at three health affairs schools on campus.

“I grew up in an immigrant family, and I was the first in my family to go to college. I literally had no one to give me advice. I started out at the wrong college and had to make a change – it was difficult,” he said. “I had to find my own way.”

Serving as a health careers mentor for the Carolina Covenant showed Strauss that students flourished sooner when there was someone to help make the path a little less difficult. When Perez asked him to serve as an LPMP communidad leader, he jumped in.

Strauss said the program “has created a special kind of ripple” where mentees and mentors, alumni and employees support one another in-kind. “They’re encouraging each other to be part of this campus while providing that cultural connection,” he said. “For so many of them, they are carrying on the dreams of their family.”

Leaving a ‘heelprint’

Perez credits the strength of the year-old program to the students behind it.

“This program is driven by passion, and they have it,” he said. “You talk about leaving a ‘heelprint,’ and this is the one they are leaving, one where the Latino community is not only recognized, but celebrated.”

Laura Gamo, a sophomore, will take on the coordination of the program beginning this summer and, she hopes, until she graduates. It was Borrego who pulled her in to LPMP, “like a big sister,” she said.

“I was that first-year student who had to force myself out of my bubble – as the youngest of three, I moved the farthest away. Now I personally make it an effort to talk to students about LPMP and get them involved.”

It will be a busy year for Gamo, but she’ll have her familia and comunidad – and Perez – for support.

“Making this a student-run program empowers them. They’ve got to build a program and run it, oversee the other students and communicate with staff,” Perez said.

“This is the kind of leadership they can take far beyond their culture, no matter what they go on to do after this.”

By Courtney Mitchell, University Gazette

Published April 18, 2014.