TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — For many young Latinas, college seems an impossible dream. Hispanic girls have the highest high-school dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group and are the least likely to earn a college degree, according to a recent study by the American Association of University Women. But 14 Hispanic students at Marymount College of Fordham University, an all-women’s Catholic college, are trying to turn the tide by serving as mentors to nearly 50 Hispanic girls from Sleepy Hollow Middle School, just down the road from the college.
“We’re inspiring them to raise their aspirations and pursue them,” said Ellen Silber, Ph.D., a French professor and director of the Marymount Institute for the Education of Women and Girls, which sponsors the Club Amigas program. “Thirty percent of Hispanic girls drop out of high school. … Our mentors have already made a great journey to get here.”
One, freshman Jenny Guzman, was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States when she was 4. “I had to learn English. I wasn’t a great reader and was always behind,” she said of her middle-school years. “I didn’t really have a support system, but I can give support to these girls.”
Each Marymount mentor meets with her three or four middle-school mentees every week for tutoring as well as talk. So far, the mentoring has primarily occurred at the middle school. However, in December, the girls came to the Marymount campus for a holiday party, where they sang a rousing rendition of “Feliz Navidad,” learned about photography from Sleepy Hollow photographer Margaret Fox, and practiced their new skills thanks to disposable cameras donated by Fuji Film. The plan is for more of the mentoring to take place at the college.
The role-model program is just one part of the Institute’s current work, a project that began this fall to help the daughters of Hispanic immigrants fulfill their academic and social potential. A Hispanic doctoral student at Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service leads a monthly workshop for the parents of the middle-school girls, and the Institute is planning a workshop about Hispanic culture for local teachers.
“Research has found that Hispanic female adolescents continue to receive far less positive reinforcement from their teachers than do white girls,” said Silber. “Yet similar studies show that when Hispanic girls do receive encouragement, there is a significant improvement in their performance.”
The programming will continue into the next academic year in part due to a $50,000 grant just received from Congresswoman Nita M. Lowey, who sits on the appropriations subcommittee for education. She said the Marymount program will “ensure that the students receive the educational opportunities to be successful later in life.” The funds, she added, would also “help teachers and schools provide the specialized services Hispanic girls need to stay in school. I am proud to support this vital initiative and look forward to seeing first-hand the positive results.”
A three-year, $30,000 grant obtained from the state education department by the Tarrytown schools also supports the Institute’s work. Additionally, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation has recently granted $25,000, and an anonymous donor $50,000, to support the program.
Officials at the middle schools are already praising the project. Miriam Ocasio, Sleepy Hollow Middle School counselor, said that the mentors provide an opportunity for her students to talk about social and academic issues that may be taboo in their homes.
Guzman said this is very important. “Being part of a Latin family, everything is unspoken,” she said. “Certain things you want to talk about with your parents you can’t. But they can talk to me.”
Middle-school administrators also highlight the benefit to the girls of spending time on a college campus. “The students view it as an opportunity to experience something they can look forward to in the future,” Ocasio said. “They are thinking more long-term.”
Clara Rodriguez, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Fordham University whose research focuses on Latinos in the United States, said that the mentors can make a major difference in the lives of the young girls. “Middle school is a particularly critical age,” she said. “Unless they have a clear vision of the possibility of college, which the college students may provide, the path can be confusing.”
Silber said she would like to replicate the project in other Westchester County communities, then bring the program to other areas across the country. “We believe the present pilot project can serve as a microcosm of similar situations throughout the nation,” she said. “We would like to disseminate a model that could truly be of use to others.”