Janvion Saunders, a high school senior from Camden, New Jersey, is planning to go to college next year, with the goal of lifting not just himself, but his family, out of poverty. “My mother told me that I cannot control the situation I am born into, but can make the best of the tools that I have,” said Saunders, who plans to study political science. “My mom sacrificed a lot and never sugar-coated what would happen if I didn’t try to make something of myself,” he said.
This August, Saunders joined nearly 200 Hispanic high school students from across the country to attend the Hispanic Student College Institute, a three-day college prep program held at Montclair State. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a designation that indicates a commitment to ensuring that Hispanic students are prepared to succeed not only in college, but in their pursuits after they graduate.
The program brings college-bound Hispanic students together, which for many, is a new experience. “This program provided the opportunity for people of color to speak about their dreams and goals without criticism,” said Saunders. “Seeing so many people of color all in one place laughing, learning and networking, I am truly grateful to have the experience to meet people that have similar aspirations as me.”
Mary A. Comito, insurance and financial advisor for State Farm Insurance and Montclair State University Board of Trustees member, welcomed the participants to the institute’s networking session with community members, alumni, faculty, staff and students. Her words on first-generation college students, family support, community encouragement and the importance of mentorship resonated with the theme of the overall institute and more broadly, with the mission of the University.
“We want to provide as much information as possible for these students to be successful and to approach the college application process from a better position,” said Katia Paz Goldfarb, assistant vice president for Hispanic Serving Initiatives. “At the same time, we want them to see themselves belonging on campus.” The participants were embraced by faculty and staff who shared their expertise and advice. Members of the Latino/a Caucus talked about their own stories and their commitment to support all the students in their academic success.
Nearly half of the students who attended the Hispanic Student College Institute will be the first in their families to go to college. For these students, the program is vital to providing them and their families with the information and tools they need to successfully apply for and obtain a higher education degree.
The keynote speaker Gian Paul Gonzalez ’07 – a star athlete while at Montclair State and current high school history teacher – urged the students to take personal responsibility for their success. Gonzalez, a motivational speaker whose “all in” stance inspired the New York Giants to a Super Bowl win, told the students what he often tells the athletes, that they have to be “all in” to succeed. For the students, that means committing to their personal dreams no matter what people say or what obstacles they face.
“There are going to be days when you walk out of these classrooms frustrated and down, and question why you thought you could make it,” Gonzalez told the students. “When you keep at it, and push through, that’s the moment when you know that you’re all in.”
That theme was echoed throughout the institute’s many workshops and presentations. During a well-attended panel of Hispanic college graduates who went on to get higher degrees, Diana Cedeño, a PhD candidate in Family Science and Human Development at Montclair State advised and encouraged the students.
“You’ll find people who might not believe in you because you are Latino, Latina, Latinx. But at the same time, being a Latina, I’ve found a lot of different mentors, people who do believe in me,” she said, adding, “The rewards are bigger than the actual challenges.”
In another motivational talk, Daniel Jean, executive director, Educational Opportunity Fund and Academic Development at Montclair State, encouraged students to take ownership of their future plans. “It’s understanding the identities you put on yourself, identifying what you plan to do in college, and what has to happen between the I am and the I will,” he said.
During the program, which is supported by State Farm Insurance and Wells Fargo, the high schoolers participated in college-planning workshops, with activities such as making the most of college visits, mock interview sessions and an essay writing workshop led by Jeffrey Gant, Montclair State University director of Undergraduate Admissions. Gant walked students through the process of picking a college application essay topic and outlining it, even offering himself as a resource for reviewing their essays and providing his email address. Students also attended a financial aid session and experienced what a typical college class was like. Another feature of the program was a full day of separate workshops for the parents and extended family members, all offered in both English and Spanish.
Throughout the three days, students met with Montclair State University student mentors, some of whom also attended the Hispanic Student College Institute when they were high school students. One such student, sophomore Gaby Davila, remembered how passionate the mentors were when she attended the program.
“I was excited to be in their shoes, to be that person to answer questions and to assure the kids that college will be a great experience,” Davila said. “When I did the program, it instilled in me the confidence I needed as a first-generation Hispanic woman. Society tells you that you can’t, but because the mentors and staff here believe in me, it reminded me that I can.”