RCSJ’s Academy for Latinx Leaders Just Start of Opportunities for Cumberland County Hispanic Students

BY CLYDE HUGHES | AC JosepH Media

VINELAND — For Iris Torres, the assistant director of the Las Vias program at Rowan College South Jersey Cumberland Campus, participating in the program has a personal meaning for her.

Torres is one of the RCSJ members who will take part in the Summer Academy for Latinx Leaders for Hispanic students on campus starting this month. The academy will be held July 12-14, 19, 26, Aug. 2 and 9, from 9 a.m. to noon.

Through the academy, students get to complete a free credit college course, develop critical first-year academic survival skills, identify and develop career goals and explore careers in their major.

Highlighting the great culture and leadership in South Jersey’s Latinx community.

“I think it was so important to help these students see the potential that is within them and to see successful members of their community and realize if they can do it, I can do it,” Torres said of her Vías hacia la Graduación, or Las Vias, program. “It’s something that I never had, so it was something it was rewarding for me to be able to be a part of that.”

Photo of Iris Torres courtesy of Iris Torres LinkedIn

Torres, Helen Cardoso, student development advisor for RCSJ’s Adelante Juntos program and Yajaira Flores, a high school recruiter for Adelante Juntos, discussed their program and the upcoming leadership academy and their programs with Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa recently with Veronica Chainey, project director for the HSI STEM Pathways Title III project at RCSJ.

To qualify for the leadership academy, students must have a college-level English or a 2.75 GPA on their high school transcript, along with being from a low-income and/or be a first-generation student.

STEM students connected with Adelante Juntos will join Las Vias students to building their leadership and other college skills for the rest of the summer before fall.

Photo of Helen Cardoso courtesy of Rowan College of South Jersey

“These are brand new STEM students coming into the college for the first time this coming fall,” Chainey said. “So, this is a bridge-type program that orients them to the college and gives them some really great skills for being successful at college.

“They are well prepared with the leadership aspect that is really perfect. I think it’s phenomenal to give it that focus.”

Adelante Juntos is a program funded by the National Science Foundation to support students interested in STEM careers, from high school to RCSJ to University and Career Entry.

The free services it offers students include academic advising, STEM career seminars, student/faculty mentorship, stipend opportunities, textbooks/lab kits to borrow, research and internship opportunities, financial aid guidance, family orientation (Fuerza Familiar Series), and guest speaker and field trips.

Las Vias seeks to increase communication​, outreach and advisement support services for our Hispanic ​students in order to promote steady connections with advisors, strengthen academic performance and increase ​the potential to graduate.​​

Photo of Veronica Chainey courtesy of Rowan College of South Jersey

In the program, students who are part of the program receive individualized academic support services, academic and career advisement, financial aid advisement, transfer services, student development, and have access to its English/Spanish bilingual staff.

Students must be low income and/or first in the family to complete college, seek to complete an associate degree or academic certificate in a non-STEM major, commit to graduate within three years or less and complete required remedial courses within the first year of study.

Torres said roughly 20 students are involved in the academy annually with a high of 23 students participating one year. Cardoso said this year with students from both programs taking part in the academy, they hope to have 44 students, 22 from each.

Flores said some of the biggest challenges in recruiting students is working around their commitments with jobs and families.

“Some of our students have jobs and some even have kids, so it’s just a matter of explaining to them what the program is and making sure that they’re aware of the benefits from it,” Flores said. “I think once they hear the benefits, they’re more committed and are more likely to come.”

Torres said the program has operated virtually for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and this is the first year they are holding in-person sessions since then.

“We’re all excited to bring them back and have them in person,” Torres said. “It just makes the experience so much more fruitful for them, I think.”

Torres said one of the things they stress to the students in their programs and in the academy that they are already leaders by taking on the responsibility of being first-generation students, blazing a trail for others to follow.

“We try to instill in them that being a first-generation student already puts them in a leadership role,” Torres said. “I try to motivate them to take on leadership roles, not just in school, but then expanding that into their own careers in pursuing their education, as well as then perhaps even into the community and their future roles.”

Cardoso added that she believes the program creates a built-in community for the students that they can lean on for help and support.

“I would want our students to know that they have support not only with ourselves at the programs and their advisors, but also with each other,” Cardoso said. “I tell them you’re going follow your [Adelante and Las Vias] classmates, for the next two years.

“We’re a small community college, so, find your study buddies and find the person who you would want to like help you get to where you want to go. That’s what I would hope our students come out from the summer bridge program.”

Photo of Yajaira Flores courtesy of Rowan College of South Jersey

Flores said the programs take into the account the importance Hispanic families play in the life of their students and make sure there is a connection with the student, the college and family structure.

“We welcome their family and a lot of family support,” Flores said. “We do have workshops that we include our parents in because a lot of our parents don’t really know what their students are going to school for and what they’re doing.

“I hope that the parents also take with them that they see the hard work and sacrifice their children are making to move forward and be successful in their careers. A lot of parents don’t see that right away.”

Chainey said one component of the programs involves allowing students to find a career and course of study that will be best for them. She said a lot of times students and parents have not been exposed to the wide variety of career options available.

“We want them to land where they will be happy,” Chainey said, showing them different courses and degrees that can start at the Cumberland campus and then onto a four-year school, along with a potential annual salary.

“You don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse to make really good money, so we try to help the parents to not put so much pressure on a student to pursue something that maybe the student isn’t interested in.”

The programs have proven valuable in allowing Latinx students to take the next step in their careers — and their lives.

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