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Justin Rodriguez, Texas representative, congratulates the universities who were finalists or received honorable mention at the Celebración de Excelencia awards ceremony Tuesday in Washington. SHFWire photo by Lorain Watters
Justin Rodriguez, Texas representative, congratulates the universities who were finalists or received honorable mention at the Celebración de Excelencia awards ceremony Tuesday in Washington. SHFWire photo by Lorain Watters

By Lorain Watters
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire (for Campus News)

Celebración de Excelencia held its eighth annual awards ceremony on September 30 in Washington, DC, to recognize college campuses that have improved higher education for their Latino students.

The universities and organizations given honorable mention, named as finalists or that received the Example of Excelencia award were from across the country, including Oklahoma, Michigan, Texas and Illinois.

The Colloquium Series Program in New York received honorable mention for its 1199SEIU Training and Upgrading Fund. The program offers students or potential students access to benefits, including tuition assistance, preparation classes for adults returning to school and skills enhancement.

David Ortiz, director and assistant professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, received the Graduate Level Example of Excelencia Award on behalf of the university.

The university received the Title V grant in 2010, which helps Hispanic-serving institutions with educational opportunities and to recruit more students from this demographic.

“We have a financial objective to get more students to graduate, but also as a Catholic university, we have a moral imperative to get these students to graduate,” Ortiz said.

He said that since receiving the grant more Hispanic students have graduated and more of the graduates have been recruited for master’s degree programs.

“It was a double-win for us. In many ways, the graduate students were an invisible community. Our master’s students are older, married, have families and active lifestyles. I’d argue that it may be even harder for them than an 18-year-old student coming to school,” Ortiz said. “We know that the completion rates for Hispanics are low, so when we get these Hispanic master’s students, there is still a chance that they may not graduate. Knowing that we are making a difference as a family at UIW is rewarding.”

Hugo Teruel, director of the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, received the Baccalaureate Level Example of Excelencia Award for his university. He said that recruiting students is key to making connections at high schools and in the barrios.

“The recruiters are also the advisers, advising them financially, academically and personally – this is what makes our program unique,” Teruel said.

Teruel said he was able to get one of his students an internship at Univision Radio. The student now has a job as director of marketing and sales for the company.

“We’re facing economic crises, like in many states, and sometimes the first programs to be cut are the ones that serve underrepresented students,” Teruel said. “We need to look at the markets for our Latino undergrads and give them the same opportunities.”

Rachel Lopez and David Ortiz. Photos by Author.
Rachel Lopez and David Ortiz. Photos by Author.

Rachel Lopez, director of the Youth and Parent Services at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan in Grand Rapids, Mich., is in charge of the Supporting Our Leaders Youth Program, a multi-year program that serves students ages 14 to 21. The students are followed through high school and are encouraged to participate in programs, such as civic engagement, leadership, community service and college preparation. Once the student is a senior, SOL helps the students enter college by finding scholarships or jobs that they can apply for.

Lopez said no other Latino youth programs cater to Hispanic families in the area, in particular to students who are first-generation. The graduation rates for the Grand Rapids area is about 42 percent, but the SOL program has a 93 percent graduation rate. Last fall, 80 percent entered college.

The program primarily serves Kent County, but Lopez wants to branch out to other counties. “The affirmation of running this program, evaluating, developing and getting national recognition for our work is rewarding and to possibly have our work replicated across the nation is a great feeling,” Lopez said.

Lopez said the program changed one student’s life.

“She started with us was in eighth grade. She had six brothers and sisters, and no one in her family had graduated high school. When she came to us, she had a lot of suspensions and probably was going to get expelled. She was failing her classes and had no desire to go to college,” she said.

The student graduated last spring and entered a community college this fall.

“She was one of our best leaders, where she was involved in every single program that we offered, number one in community services, went above and beyond from what we asked and we counted on her the most,” Lopez said. “We want to develop these students as leaders but also have them be proud of their heritage.”