Stockton University student to fellow Latinos: ‘Hey, I made it. You can make it, too’

Stockton students give a campus tour to potential new students during Latino visitation day at Stockton University. November 17, 2016.

A series of flags flashed across the screens at the front of the room: Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala.

Each image drew cheers and applause from the hundreds of New Jersey high school students gathered last week at Stockton University.

When the Mexican flag popped up, some students jumped to their feet and shouted; when the Puerto Rican flag came up, a roar went around the room.

“How beautiful is that, guys?” Heather Medina, assistant director of admissions at Stockton, called out as she took the stage. “What makes us different unites us!”

With that, Latino Visitation Day had begun, an annual tradition at a university trying to diversify its enrollment. The event grew out of a 1987 program run by the student group known then as Los Latinos Unidos.

Medina was a student then; when she returned to Stockton as an administrator in 1996, 226 of Stockton’s 5,979 students identified as Hispanic or Latino — just 3.8 percent. Today about 13 percent of the undergraduates at Stockton are Hispanic or Latino.

“It’s not by accident,” Medina said. “It didn’t just happen by happenstance.”

“If you want to reach those students who are not only college-bound, but you want to reach those students who have the thought and may not have pursued it, you have to ignite that fire in them,” she said. “And you’re not going to do that by just pushing a bunch of brochures their way.”

For Stockton, the decision to market to underrepresented student populations is based on a philosophy of eliminating barriers, said Harvey Kesselman, the university’s president.

A federal Department of Education report released Friday, “Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education,” explores gaps between student groups and recommends ways for colleges and universities to address them.

Among its findings: From 1974 to 2014, the gap between white and Hispanic students receiving bachelor’s degrees doubled, widening from 9 percent to 20 percent.

“We will be vigilant as it pertains to ensuring that the achievement gap upon entrance and exit is nonexistent,” Kesselman said. “And until we’re at that point, then we need to have certain programmatic efforts to ensure that people have a legitimate shot at being as successful as more advantaged peers.”

During Thursday’s Latino Visitation Day, students learned about the admissions process and financial aid, and toured campus. The atmosphere was festive, with music, jokes, and salutes from Latin student groups.

Moses Le (left) and Jose Ortiz of Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc. put on a demonstration for visiting students. (RYAN HALBE / FOR THE INQUIRER)

At one point, John Iacovelli, the university's dean of enrollment management, danced on stage — or tried to. “You’ve got to understand,” he laughingly apologized, “I’m old. I’m white.”

All of it, Medina said, was aimed at making the students feel comfortable. Speakers using Spanish often got some of the biggest cheers from the crowd.

Marcos Renoj, 21, a senior studying public health, said he remembered sometimes feeling out of place when he first arrived on campus from Trenton, where non-Hispanic white residents make up just 13.5 percent of the city. About 70 percent of Stockton students are white.

“It was a culture shock when I came to Stockton initially,” he said: The music was different; the people didn’t look the same. “I was the one standing out now.”

Renoj found a community in Lambda Sigma Upsilon, a Latino fraternity founded in 1979 at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

“Finding them, it was like I had that connection at home,” he said.

At last week’s event, Renoj said, he wanted students to see themselves in him. His goal: “Show my face and say, ‘Hey, I made it. You can make it, too.’ … Just show them that all the barriers that are put against us, we can overcome.”

Several visiting students said they felt welcomed and comfortable; some said they were now considering applying to Stockton.

“You have to feel the community, like the event from today,” Paola Alamo, 18, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, wrote in a text message after the event.

A majority of students at Wilson identify as Hispanic or Latino. Yvette Pruitt, a college counselor at the school, said some of her students don’t expect to go to college or believe it to be possible.

“Some … don’t believe that they’re actually college material, or, in some cases, they’re some students who have some obstacles to attending college,” she said.

“Just because you came from Camden doesn’t mean you can’t be successful,” she said. “That’s very, very important for them to hear, and those students who don’t quite believe that they can overcome all of their circumstances, it always helps as many times as we can get other people to say, ‘No, you can make it.’ ”

Kesselman said that until he was satisfied the campus reflected the population of South Jersey, Stockton would continue to study its data and target underrepresented populations.

“We also have in our mission to move society forward,” Kesselman said. “And society includes all of the people, not just some of the people. And in order to do that, we have to make sure that in front of them are people who look like them.”

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