Photo of College Hall Bell Tower
University News

Hispanic Heritage Month: Inspiring Stories of Persistence

First-generation Latinx students share their college experiences

Posted in: University

Hispanic Heritage Flag Raising
Montclair State’s Latinx community raises flags to celebrate Hispanic Awareness Month.

As Montclair State celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, a common thread runs through the stories of Latinx students on campus: a determination to make the most of college, to succeed and get their degrees – for themselves and for their families.

“I have this drive,” says Luz Corado Polo, a senior Justice Studies major with three concentrations – International, Paralegal and Justice Systems – and a minor in Justice and Families.

“I know a lot of people don’t have the opportunities that I have, who weren’t born in this country, who do not have papers or have the financial help to come to college and make their dreams come true,” she says.

“I’m going to take those people, their dreams, their drive, their motivation and make it mine.”

Montclair State enrolls more Hispanic undergraduates than any other New Jersey higher ed institution – 35 percent of this year’s freshman class identify as Hispanic, says Assistant Vice President for Hispanic Serving Initiatives Katia Paz Goldfarb.

In a series of interviews, student leaders with the Hispanic Student College Institute (HSCI), Educational Opportunity Fund and Latin American Student Organization discussed the significance of their shared experiences overcoming barriers and challenges to having a path to higher education and a network of support once here.

“I have so many goals and so many things to live up to,” says William G. Dominguez Barrios, a junior majoring in Medical Humanities and Psychology. “I tell myself, ‘You have to finish, it’s going to get hard, but nothing’s impossible.’”

Its recognition as an Hispanic-Serving Institution emphasizes the University’s commitment to Latinx students and their families in increasing access to college, and achieving academic and career success, Paz Goldfarb says. The magazine, Hispanic Outlook on Education, has listed Montclair State among the Top 100 Colleges for Hispanics for the past 18 years.

The Hispanic Student College Institute, a summer program that provides college planning, career guidance and parent workshops, served as an introduction to Montclair State for many of the students while in high school. They in turn now serve as mentors, or “guiding lights” as Dominguez described their roles – for younger Latinos encouraged to think big about their futures.

“I mentored 12 students,” says Corado Polo, “each coming from different parts of New Jersey and each of them with different dreams, different aspirations.” They also shared the same worries she had when applying to college, about being accepted, about being a first-generation student or an immigrant, about paying for college or being able to succeed in class.

“All those doubts reminded me of how I felt.” What Corado Polo has come to realize, and what she tells others is that “anything is possible as long as you put your mind and your heart into what you want.”

Living on campus is often a new experience. “I’m first generation, so I didn’t have the reference or someone to tell me, ‘This is what you’re going to see. This is what to expect.’ I was scared, but I made sure not to let that stop me,” says Darllene Severino, a senior studying Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Entrepreneurship.

The U.S. Education Trust describes Montclair State as a “Top Gap Closer” for increasing graduation rates for minority students, and the student leaders who shared their experiences credit the bonds formed during HSCI, as well as mentors at the Educational Opportunity Fund and University College for inspiring them to earn their diplomas.

“They’re in your corner when you feel like no one else is and guiding you every step of the way,” says Audrey Vargas-Cruz, a sophomore studying Jurisprudence, Law and Society.

Jane Sanchez Swain, an academic advisor in University College, has a background similar to many of the Latinx students at Montclair State. “When I meet with students, I don’t shy away from sharing more about myself, to reassure them they belong here.”

Guillermo E. Estrada, a junior studying Public Health, says the stories mentors have shared of their own perseverance have helped him grow. “Now, I’m pushing forward, having goals as big as the moon. I’m just shooting for it.”

Families also play big roles in the value of college degrees. “Because my parents struggled when we came to the United State, I want to obtain a degree so I don’t go through the same struggles,” adds Adonis Taveras Rodriguez, a junior studying Business Administration. “The purpose in life for me is to prosper, to keep pushing and make someone out of myself; to be an example for those who come after me.”

Educational Opportunity Fund Assistant Director Carmen Reyes-Cuevas regularly presents workshops in Spanish to help parents understand the application process, financial aid, and provide a space for questions.

“I know that the parents sometimes feel alienated from the process, but when you give presentations in Spanish, it validates them,” says Reyes-Cuevas. “We find that the parents are receptive and they show up. Even though they might not even understand the language, they stay because they’re invested.”

The dates of National Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 – October 15, are significant, as September 15 marks the independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile also celebrate their independence during the month-long celebration.

On the Montclair State campus, the Office of Hispanic Serving Initiatives and Latin American Student Organization will celebrate the diverse and dynamic Latinx community with special virtual events that focus on culture and challenges:

  • A virtual research colloquium, “Understanding the academic, financial, and mental health impact of COVID-19 on Latinx students at Montclair State,” will be presented on September 23 at 1:30 p.m. by the Psychology Department’s Assistant Professor Jazmin Reyes-Portillo and Professor Carrie Masia.
  • Presentation by Sara Peña, director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development, State of New Jersey; online on September 29 at 5:30 p.m.
  • Univision Presentation and Interview with radio personality DJ Chris Mambo, La X 96.3 FM; online on October 5 at 4:30 p.m.
  • A TED-style talk by Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Blanca Vega on October 19 at 3 p.m. will cover Latinx pride and struggles.

“This month gives us an opportunity to share, recognize and celebrate de donde venimos y a donde vamos as an intrinsic part of the society,” Paz Goldfarb says.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren

You May Also Like:

Seeing Campus Differently

Determined to Make the Most of College

Helping Hispanic Students Achieve College