You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. -Brene Brown
As I walk on campus every day, I often think about how far Latin@s have come in the world of higher education. My college campus is a Hispanic Serving Institution, a term I had never heard during my undergraduate or even graduate school career. There are a plethora of clubs that represent the Latin@ community, addressing a wide range of cultural, professional and political concerns. There are Latin@ Greek-lettered organizations nationwide and even professors and administrators who look like me.
Rewind to 1989. The number one song on Labor Day weekend was Cold Hearted by Paula Abdul, though I have chosen to forget the fashion trends of that time – something horrible, no doubt. Starting out as a freshman from the Bronx at Syracuse University I was a fish out of water – an excited fish – but out of water nonetheless. The weather was at least 20 degrees colder (in August) than I was used to. There were no administrators, RAs or students of color that I could find, at least not on day one. And for sure there were no faculty of color in the engineering school (or women for that matter). But I was free. I was on my own, finally. And I didn’t have to answer to anyone, at least in my 18 year old brain.
My parents owned their home and we had a Toyota Tercel, which apparently made us ineligible for any kind of financial aid or special programs. Orientation was about $500 and I could not afford to attend, but I wanted one last chance to hang out with my friends before heading to the frozen tundra that is upstate New York. As a student affairs professional, I often think back to the lack of hand holding when I was in college. In spite of this, I counted myself lucky. On day two of my life at SU, I found the job that I would have from my first week of classes until the day before Commencement. I also finally found my NYC connection. I was drawn like a magnet to a Puerto Rican, upper classman from NYC. I latched on to her like I would never see another one again. She and I started on a journey to create the first Latin@ student group on campus. She had already started thinking about this during the HEOP program, where she was a peer counselor and where it seemed like every student of color on campus, except me, belonged. She began the conversations and recruitment with the HEOP Summer Institute class of 1989 and with my help, started the foundation for a new club. By early fall, the Hispanic American Society was born. The name changed but the group continues to thrive as Latino Undergraduates Creating History in America, La LUCHA.
I see now that HEOP and other bridge programs are where many an advocate and student leader from the population of color is born. And while I was not eligible for those programs, I did get myself into the FOCUS in Science program that was run by the same staff. I could count on one hand the number of friends that I had that did not come to Syracuse Univerisity via the HEOP Summer Institute.
Like all freshman, as my year went on I found my feet sort of, kind of, firmly planted in campus culture. The difference is that I had to create that space from scratch. And I wasn’t done. If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting the Syracuse Campus, it is stunning. But for me, what captured my imagination were the houses that were owned by fraternities and sororities. I could not fathom that these college kids lived in mansions while at school. Some were a bit on the shabby side, but they were mansions! I investigated the whole rushing thing. It. Was. Not. For. Me. I have family members who belong to black Greek organizations and still couldn’t quite see myself in one of them. After an excursion to SUNY Cortland, I met women from a Latina sorority. A Latina sorority? That was all she wrote. By junior year I was in the founding pledge class of my sorority. Thirty-seven women belonged to that organization by the time I was initiated. Today there are over 1,000.
Wanting to belong is so important for any young person. But for those of us who are/were first generation, finding a place, a home away from home, becomes our only life-line. Eventually I would meet a few more Latin@s who looked out for me. Without them and the folks who worked for HEOP and FOCUS, I may have transferred or never finished.
Now, when I walk through my campus or visit my alma mater, I think that perhaps I was just a tiny part of a movement to insure a place for Latin@ and other underrepresented students today that is strong, fulfilling and part of what helps them be successful in college.