UnidosUS’s Avanzando Through College Latino Student Support Program Expands Its Nationwide Reach

Dr. Araceli Hernandez-Laroche, associate professor of modern languages at University of South Carolinas-Upstate, leads Avanzando Through College participants through a discussion about mental health.


by Leticia Hart, Senior Program Manager, Higher Education, 

In 2016, people identifying as Hispanic or Latino became the largest ethnic minority in the United States. This milestone coincided with others for Hispanic students. That same year, data from the National Center for Education Statistic’s 2018 Compendium Report noted that 89% of Latinos aged 18-24 earned a high school diploma or an alternative credential, and Pew Research Data shows Hispanic college enrollment rates at 47%—up 8 % over the last 15 years—and that 22% of Latinos aged 25 to 29 had earned a college degree.

While these advances are worth celebrating, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that Hispanic students still continue to lag behind other groups in obtaining a four-year degree.  When compared to the 47% of White adults aged 25 to 29 with a college degree, we see a significant achievement gap in college completion. This gap has a direct impact on the economic and social mobility of the Hispanic community as the number of jobs requiring a college degree continues to grow.

Understanding the economic and social benefits of more college-educated residents, more than 40 states during the past decade have set goals to increase their state’s share of adults with college credentials and degrees. In many of these states, achieving these “degree attainment” goals will be directly related to their state’s ability to increase the shares of Black and Latino adults in those states that have college credentials and degrees, particularly as population growth among communities of color continues to outpace the White population and older White workers retire and leave the workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in the workforce more than doubled, representing a 137% increase of Hispanic workers compared to just a 13% increase among workers of all other ethnic groups.

Avanzando Through College program facilitators and UnidosUS staff at the July 2019 training in Dallas.

Engaging Latino Students in Avanzando Through College

Because of years of educational and demographic research, UnidosUS saw these trends coming. As a result, in 2015, we developed the Avanzando Through College program to provide support to affiliates serving Hispanic college students facing the challenges that lead to those discrepancies. Through this culturally relevant college retention program, students spend a year participating in 13 meetings on topics such as study skills, public speaking, and relationship-building with their professors and advisors.

In just four years—the ideal timespan for obtaining one’s bachelor’s—the Avanzando Through College program has doubled in size. That’s thanks to funding from the program’s sponsor State Farm, as well as to the program’s popularity among Latino college students.

During its first years, the program focused on historic Latino communities in Los Angeles, Calif. and San Antonio, Texas. In Los Angeles, CA, our longstanding Affiliate AltaMed was a pioneer site for our youth economic mobility program Escalera: Taking Steps to Success, which began in 2001. In an effort to continue supports for those same students, UnidosUS worked with AltaMed to create Avanzando Through College, with the goal of helping these youth successfully transition into and through their college careers.

Now with $1 million in additional State Farm funding, we’ll spend the next two years building the capacity of our program while expanding it to more than 300 college students across seven states. Our newest sites are located in Spartanburg, SC, Indianapolis, IN, Elyria and Cleveland, OH, and St. Paul, MN. Do those sound off the map for where most of us imagine significant Latino populations? That’s why we chose them. We know that as the Latino population grows, it is expanding into places where the educational community may not be logistically, politically, or culturally equipped to support them.

In the Spartanburg program, for example, we welcomed more than 30 Latino students from the University of South Carolina Upstate. They have been meeting up twice a month to share a meal with the institution’s Latino faculty and learn about college success strategies. Program facilitators Wanda Cromer and Susannah Waldrop were excited by how well the program was received by USC Upstate students and how easily they reached their recruitment goals. In addition, the students are connecting with one another and building community.

USC Upstate Yasmine Quezada says the Avanzando program sparked her passion to forge ahead just by showing her the low rates of Latinos obtaining college degrees.

“At home, I don’t hear anything about education, so I truly listened to the advice at Avanzando. That motivated me to be one who does get a degree,” she says. “At the beginning of the semester, I was overwhelmed. I felt like an outsider because I was the only Hispanic in all of my classes. The program, especially the people running it, showed they care like no other people on this campus. They understood how hard it is to be first generation as well as Hispanic. Every time I came back to the next Avanzando meeting I was excited to learn something new about the Hispanic community.”

AAvanzando Through College program kick off at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Meanwhile in our program at Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis, the Avanzando Through College program has found a home in the school’s Diversity and Enrichment Achievement Program (DEAP), where it can help Latino students advocate for culturally relevant curricula.

“My experience in this program has been magnificent. It has taught me valuable college skills, while helping me connect to other people who look like me,” says Siriany Guzman, an IUNUI freshman studying Biology. She notes that IUPUI is a predominately White institution (PWI), and even though she is in other programs for minority students, she still doesn’t feel she has found her place on a massive campus with some 30,000 students. “It was eye opening in the sense that it made me see that there are others exactly like me going through the same struggles and that I can make it just like them.”

Preparing the Avanzando Through College Leadership Team

Given these experiences, our team knows it needs to double down on its efforts to help them find their voice and their rightful place in the community. In addition to training the students to be leaders, we’ve got to take time to reflect upon and re-think our own leadership skills.

Last July, we did just that by gathering our program facilitators in Dallas for a three-day training that covered UnidosUS’s legacy work in the United States’ Civil Rights Movement and active learning strategies for creating culturally inclusive educational environments.

As the senior program manager for the Avanzando Through College program, I learned the great value of bringing this program to new communities throughout the United States. In talking to our current higher education partners, as well as institutions that are interested in partnering, there is a great need to support higher education institutions to create support programs that are culturally responsive. In fact, I’m already seeing how this program is transforming these campuses when it comes to supporting Latino college students. The Avanzando Through College program has opened the door for a direct conversation about Latino student success and how to better serve these students. My hope is that these conversations result in an institutional shift to more intentional support of all underrepresented students.

As the school year reaches its halfway point, Avanzando Through College program participants throughout the country are benefiting from the generous support of State Farm. With more than five new sites and four new higher education partners, the Avanzando Through College is reaching more Latino college students than ever before. For more information about the Avanzando Through College program, please contact Leticia Hart, Senior Program Manager, Higher Education, at [email protected].


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