After several rounds of shouts and myriad smiles, the mentors and new mentees of the Hispanic/Latino Peer Mentoring Program at the University of Virginia played fútbol or just chatted as they waited in line for sandwiches on a pleasant September afternoon on Grounds.
Entering Hispanic/Latino students were matched with mentors after everyone met Aug. 30 at an event similar to “speed dating.” The big moment, when students found out who their mentor would be, happened Sept. 7 at the picnic in Nameless Field.
In the past few years, U.Va. students’ involvement in Hispanic/Latino activities has increased, although such students make up only about 5 percent of total enrollment. It shows that this diverse group of students has made U.Va. a home away from home, said Julie Roa, program coordinator for Multicultural Student Services. The mentor-mentee pairs are organized in five bigger groups called “familias” that, in turn, add up to more than 120 students.
The students grew up in or have strong ethnic backgrounds to more than a dozen countries, including Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Columbia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela. Some are multi-ethnic – Hispanic and Greek, Chinese and Chilean, Lebanese and Bolivian.
Multicultural Student Services is a branch of the U.Va. Office of the Dean of Students that focuses on meeting the needs of diverse groups of students by offering them support and guidance. Roa also oversees services for Middle Eastern and Native American students, while another colleague works with Asian and Asian-Pacific-American students.
“These communities are growing and thriving,” Roa said.
Peer mentors are a resource for incoming students, she said. The mentors draw from their own experience at U.Va., as well as from their training, to inform and guide newer students in making the transition from their previous school to the complex academic, intellectual and social culture here.
The mentoring matches stay in touch regularly through emails, phone calls and get-togethers, organized by mentors or the heads of the familias. There are five peer-mentoring familias, each headed by an executive board member of the program, with about 11 or 12 mentors each, who in turn, stay connected to one or two mentees.
Fourth-year student and mentor Marco Segura, a Peruvian who grew up in Northern Virginia, said he enjoys spending time with new students to help show them the path to succeed here at U.Va. The mentor he had when he was first-year did the same for him.
“It’s a good way to pass on traditions and make lifelong connections, he said.
Melissa Roggero, now in her third year, also had a mentor when she entered U.Va. and agreed it provided great connections. Just as importantly, her mentor became a friend she could turn to for help whenever she needed it. Roggero said she wanted to do the same thing for another student, and this is her second year mentoring. She’s still friends with last year’s mentee, Alisha Ault, and Savine Hernandez is her mentee this year.
Missing the culture of her native Brazil, Ault, who is second year, joined the Latino Student Alliance last year and found it helped to get involved in its activities. The alliance serves as the umbrella organization for the Latino/Hispanic community at U.Va., where there are 13 different Latino/Hispanic student organizations, such as the language/culture immersion residence hall, La Casa Bolivar, and the Latino Student Network at the McIntire School of Commerce.
Arturo Melo, a finance and management major in the Commerce School who is from Panama, is a member of that network, as well as a peer mentor. He wants to pass along some advice that he learned in retrospect: it’s worth joining student groups and seeking extracurricular activities soon after coming to U.Va.
He said he realized in his first year he hung out mostly with other Latino students and wasn’t getting to know American culture. He decided to go outside his comfort zone and joined Sigma Chi fraternity. At the same time, he’s still part of the Latino community here.
The majority of white students don’t have the same questions of identity and belonging that minority students often feel, Roa said. “The peer mentoring programs are one more way to connect and expose undergraduates to other successful students,” she said.
Starting Friday, the Latino Student Alliance is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with a range of events free and open to the public. Look for lots of good food and dancing, film screenings, lectures and a soccer tournament.