• Diversity

Mentors Help Build Bridge Between Students and Success

Hispanic Federation’s CREAR Futuros helped Stephanie Calderon find her Latin roots and a clearer path through college.

Stephanie Calderon’s Hispanic roots run deep in her family, but she didn’t manage to tap them until college. Growing up, she recalls, her parents encouraged her to assimilate to American culture.  “I was never raised to be proud of who I am,” she says.

That changed her freshman year at John Jay College in New York through two key decisions. The first was a Latin American Studies class, through which Stephanie began exploring the rich culture of Colombians like her mother and the plight of Puerto Ricans like her father. The second happened when she joined CREAR Futuros and met her mentor Kelly, a sophomore, who was Puerto Rican and Guyanese.

“She was there for me like no one else,” Stephanie says, helping her better understand her dual legacies and broader Hispanic heritage. “Few of us in the community have someone to hold our hand.”

CREAR, which stands for College Readiness, Achievement and Retention, and also means “to create” in Spanish, is a Hispanic Federation peer-mentorship program that helps Latino college students realize their academic potential and, in the long run, find more economic opportunities.

From Dream to Reality

“These young people have immense potential to do what they want to do,” says Jose Calderon, President of the Hispanic Federation. “It’s about access and knowing that there are people who want their success,”

Stephanie, now a junior in college and mentor herself, was one of many students sharing stories recently at a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month held at Morgan Stanley, a long-time Hispanic Federation partner through the Morgan Stanley Foundation. She is one of the more than three million Hispanics who reported attending college in 2015 U.S. Census data, up from 1.8 million in 2005.1 Though the community has made significant gains in enrollment, graduation rates are still a problem. CREAR Futuros helps them cross the finish line. 

While the road to success has many paths, many of the obstacles are well documented. Hispanic and many other minority students grapple with socio-economic issues and the pressures of often being the first in their families to attend college. After the initial excitement and pride of college acceptance and matriculation comes the reality of navigating the world of academia, financial challenges and feeling like they are still caught between two worlds: home and campus life.

Stephanie remembers choosing “between food and books” when her mother, a nurse, was in between jobs and money was tight in her family. “I got through it, and I knew that it was even worse for others,” referring to undocumented students who face fears of deportation and uncertainty over their longer term status in the U.S.

Dreaming Big

It’s in those difficult moments when a mentor can make the biggest difference, says Susan Reid, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Morgan Stanley. “If you know that someone just like you has walked the same path and faced the same obstacles and managed to make it through—when you know it can be done because someone just like you has done it—then you know that you can make it, too,” Reid says. 

Speaking to the students, Reid encouraged each of them to reach higher, despite the obstacles: “You can choose to run this company one day, or to run your own company,” she said. “I want you to dream really, really big.”

The Hispanic Federation plans to expand CREAR Futuros. The program was built in the belief that peer-mentorship is an effective remedy in developing a community and encouraging students to graduate, says Calderon. And what works at the college level can also work for Latino high school students to help more of them go to college.

Indeed, nearly a third of all high school students do not have the knowledge or skills sets necessary to succeed in college, according to data from the Department of Education.2 That should alarm everyone, says Calderon. “How are we going to sustain an economy when our future workforce isn’t college ready? It’s heartbreaking. We have to change that dynamic.”