By Christina Drain
Latino high school students need more role models who can show them what can be attained through a college education, says the founder of a new program at Ohio State that strives to show the path to success for many who will become the first generation from their families to be college students.
Frederick Luis Aldama, Humanities Distinguished Professor of English and director of Latino Studies, founded the Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research (LASER) in 2009 as a way to bring in speakers on topics of interest to Hispanic and Latino students.
The program soon added a mentoring program for graduate and undergraduate students at Ohio State, then expanded with a high school mentoring program — and now the daisy-chain of mentoring from secondary through graduate school is the first of its kind in the nation.
“I knew it wasn’t just enough to recruit Latino students at the undergraduate and graduate level; we needed a mechanism in place not just to retain but to grow them in all of their capacities,” Aldama said.
Although the Hispanic and Latino population in Ohio numbers just 350,000 —about 3 percent of the state’s population — that figure represents 63.4 percent growth in the last decade.
“It’s a young population,” Aldama said. “That population is now working its way through elementary school and into high school, and we are basically going to be in the next few years on equal footing if not surpassing the number of African Americans in the K-12 system. So we need something that is going to be proactive.”
The high school program is unique in that it isn’t a social group but an academically rigorous program designed to prepare Latino students for college. Undergraduate and graduate school mentors, through weekly sessions, serve as role models, coach students on academic and extracurricular activities needed for college admission and guide them through the college application process.
Mia Underdown, an Accounting graduate student at Fisher College of Business, was an undergraduate last spring when she became the first of two mentors in the high school program. She has helped define the program to the point that she recently helped train about 50 undergrads to become mentors.
Underdown is mentoring two high-schoolers, a sophomore and a junior, and tailors goals for each grade.
“If we are working with high school freshmen, we are focusing on study habits and making sure they are taking challenging classes and keeping up with their grades,” Underdown said. “When we get to juniors and seniors, we are talking more about the actual transition to college, the application process and standardized testing.”
Aldama’s involvement in the program is from personal experience. He was born in Mexico; his mother was American, of Guatemalan and Irish descent, while his father was Mexican. While he was still young, his mother moved back to California.
“I was one of those kids who almost fell through the cracks,” he said. “Mom was an elementary school teacher, but we grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood. There was one moment in my life when, if I had gotten in the car with my friend Miguel, I would have ended up in jail, not because of anything I did but because of what Miguel did when they went out that evening.
“The environment was such that I could have gone a completely different way.”
Affirmative action afforded him a path to a college degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and doctorate at Stanford University. Aldama has published 14 books, with six more in production, on Latino and Postcolonial literature, art, music, film and comic books.
Still, he sees a Latino culture that has progressed slowly in affirmative action.
“Often teachers that see you in a certain way — Aldama or Guzman or Jose — there’s a sense automatically that you are only capable of trade schools. There’s a history of certain preconceptions,” he says.
He has hired a project manager, Tara Polansky, to work with high school counselors to identify students who might be interested in the program. The program is open to all ethnicities. There are 26 mentees in the program, with more interest growing daily. Aldama hopes to maintain a ratio of two mentees for each mentor.
Aldama also has extended the program to nearby Otterbein University.
“Ideally we want them at OSU, but of course it’s not always possible, so we partnered with Otterbein,” he said. “It’s a different kind of environment for learning. It’s much smaller and it’s private. They can do things with scholarship money, especially with students who are high achieving but may not have residency status.”