In the spring of 2003, Dr. Ellen Silber of Fordham University heard this from the superintendent of a school district outside New York City: ”Hispanic girls are a quiet problem; too many of them quietly drop out of school due to a growing sense that they can’t make it.”
“That was the moment I realized that the ones who needed mentoring the most, those who lacked educational role models in their lives, were the Latinas,” she recalls.
She started a program, Mentoring Latinas, which was dubbed "Club Amigas" by its Latina participants.
I learned that being Latina doesn’t stop you from being someone in life. I used to think because I am Latina, I wouldn’t get as many opportunities as everyone else.
- Jessica, 13 years old
The successful program matches young Latinas in the Bronx with Fordham students. To date, it has served more than 300 middle school and high school Latinas through 130 college mentors. From September to May, mentors meet weekly with their students on Fordham’s campus.
Meeting in the university environment, she said, is a key component of the program’s approach because it makes college a tangible possibility.
The deck seems to be stacked against many Latinas today. According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, as many as 41 percent of Latina students do not graduate high school in four years. In addition, only one in 10 Latino children have parents that attended college, thus the desperate need to connect Latinas with positive, college-educated role models to engage them in goal-setting.
Silber’s program methodically addresses these realities by choosing mentors who understand the barriers adolescent Latinas face. The mentors have faced those same obstacles and overcame them.
They also become models for the girls’ parents, an example of what their daughters can strive to become.
"I know that at her age my daughter doesn't tell me everything," said one of the mothers. "I'm so glad to know that she is getting guidance from her mentor."
Weekly visits to Fordham’s Bronx campus make a great impression on mentees. As Silber said, “So many Latinas have grown up just blocks from here, but had never visited. Perhaps they felt it wasn’t a place for people like them.”
Bringing the younger girls to campus to meet with Latinas five to 10 years older who are enrolled at Fordham smashes any preconceived notions that they don’t belong.
Silber has made it easier for other colleges to emulate this program by publishing Mentoring Latinas Handbook, which is available for free to university officials. Those interested can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.