Diversity and Democracy

Improving Opportunities for Latino/a Students through Civic Engagement

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. In my early adolescence, I moved with my family to a poor, predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. Growing up in the inner city can limit an individual’s ability to pursue her educational dreams. Negative stereotypes and low expectations can compromise a young person’s academic identity. Coming from such an environment, I never thought that an institution like Mount Holyoke College (MHC) would acknowledge my talents and passions.

Nevertheless, in the winter of 2004, I made a life-changing decision. I applied to MHC as a nontraditional-age student. I was accepted to MHC in the spring of 2005 and began my first semester in a four-year liberal arts college, fulfilling a dream that I had nurtured for years and against all odds. Walking through the gates of this leading academic institution, I knew that I too could earn a college degree.

Before coming to MHC, I was dedicated to community research and education. I wondered if I would be able to stay involved in community work while pursuing an exceptional education. As a school that connected practice and learning, MHC was an ideal match for me.

MHC shows its commitment to diversity by providing students with opportunities to engage purposefully with communities outside the campus. Initiatives such as the Community-Based Learning Program (CBL) link students with communities in Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts. This program has been instrumental in my academic development. It has allowed me to pursue my passion for community education while sharing my accomplishments with the communities I care so much about. It has also substantially eased my transition to the four-year liberal arts college setting. Through CBL, I found a familiar Puerto Rican community that provides comfort and support as I attend MHC.

My work with CBL has allowed me to improve educational opportunities for students from backgrounds similar to my own. I worked closely with Springfield, Connecticut’s Parks and Recreation Department and a local public elementary school to revitalize an underserved neighborhood and improve the educational experiences of children who attend the neighborhood elementary school.

One of the most rewarding parts of this experience has been my work to support the education of Latino children. The school has a growing majority Latino population whose needs have not been appropriately met. Cultural gaps that exist between parents and teachers can constrain a child’s educational opportunities. Through my CBL project, I was able to support the teachers’ initiative to bridge these cultural gaps. I collaborated with the staff and teachers to write a culturally relevant parent handbook. I also provided additional support by translating the handbook and all administrative forms into Spanish.

To support my interest in increasing cultural awareness of all of the elementary school students, I developed cultural presentations. I presented the history of Puerto Rico, as well as folkloric music and dance, while wearing traditional Puerto Rican clothing. I hope that these projects will not only increase the cultural knowledge of all students, but also allow me to serve as a Latina role model. I want the students to see that, like them, I have faced and am overcoming cultural and educational gaps in my pursuit of a college education.

Being a part of the Mount Holyoke community has allowed me to integrate my talents, my background, and my passions with my academic experience. I am eager to share the opportunities I have found at MHC with others, and therefore I am currently committed to an MHC initiative to enroll more low- and moderate-income transfer students from community colleges. As I serve as a mentor to facilitate students’ transitions, I am honored to advise new students like myself in the process of applying to a premier institution. My experience demonstrates that a community that fosters diversity and civic engagement enriches learning and cultivates strong leaders.

Yedalis Ruiz is a student at Mount Holyoke College majoring in psychology and education.

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