According to stats compiled at Armstrong Atlantic State University, 70 to 80 percent of Hispanic students who apply for enrollment are accepted.
Only 5 to 15 percent of them actually graduate.
The reason is clear -- students must drop out of school because of financial need. An organization called HOLA (Hispanic Outreach and Leadership at Armstrong) is working to change that.
“One of the goals of the HOLA program is to increase leadership opportunities for the larger number of Hispanics in our region,” says program coordinator Melody Ortiz. “As more Hispanics attain a college education, they will increase the living standards of their communities and have an overall positive impact on the entire region.”
Georgia has had one of the largest increases in Hispanic population in the United States, with more than 625,000 Hispanics currently residing here, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2000.
Hispanic students at Armstrong recently got a boost of confidence. An organization called the Goizueta Foundation awarded a $604,205 grant to AASU.
The Goizueta Foundation was established in 1992 by Roberto C. Goizueta, who knew firsthand that with an education, Hispanics are more likely to succeed. A native of Cuba, Goizueta was a Yale graduate who became the CEO of the Coca-Cola Co., a position he held until his death in 1997.
This is the second time the foundation has awarded a grant to Armstrong. “We received $500,000 back in 2003 to start the pilot project,” Ortiz says. “The foundation was happy with our stewardship and decided to renew the grant.”
The grant will help fund the program for another four years, at which point Ortiz is hopeful that a third grant will be awarded.
“I will actively pursue funding from other sources, as well,” she says.
Through the grant, HOLA provides scholarship funding for outstanding Hispanic students. “We started with five scholarship students in 2003,” Ortiz says. “Now it has grown to nine full-time scholarships a year.”
As part of her job, Ortiz travels to high schools throughout Georgia and South Carolina to recruit students for Armstrong and to encourage them to stay in school. Her recruitment efforts are showing success.
The Hispanic population on campus has increased 44 percent, Ortiz says. Currently, 3.8 percent of the total student population is Hispanic, as compared to 2.5 before.
“In the state of Georgia, it’s the highest population of Hispanics in the university system,” Ortiz says.
As a comprehensive recruitment and retention initiative, HOLA works to reach not just students, but their parents, and it also strives to make students feel welcome in Savannah. “Our program focuses on the overall experience the student has here at Armstrong,” Ortiz says.
“We provide other retention programs, such as cultural events,” she says. “We now have Latino Heritage Week on campus.”
‘We don’t want these students to take their talent abroad.’
Students in HOLA also reach out to help the community. “We’re using the scholarship students to mentor English as a Second Language students in public schools as part of the scholarship provisions,” Ortiz says. HOLA is open not only to scholarship students and not just to Hispanics, but to all students on campus. In addition to social activities, luncheons are held with motivational speakers.
“They give testimonies and talk about their work in the community,” Ortiz says. “They talk about what their struggles were, how they overcame adversity to become a professional and a good servant of the community.”
To qualify for a scholarship, a student must have a 3.0 grade point average. “They have to have lived in Georgia for two to three years or have resided in Beaufort or Jasper counties in South Carolina,” Ortiz says.
“Their parents must live in the U.S.,” she says. “We don’t want these students to take their talent abroad. They have to demonstrate financial need, in other words, they must qualify for financial aid.”
The scholarship covers tuition and fees. Books are covered on a case-to-case basis. In some cases, the scholarship also helps the students with money for housing.
In addition to scholarships, the grant will provide funding for another full-time Hispanic bilingual recruiter so AASU can extend recruitment efforts into Florida. Also, a graduate assistantship position will be added to benefit graduate students.
‘Sometimes I say, maybe I should quit school. What keeps me going is my little girl.’
Maribel Gomez was born in Mexico, but has lived in North Carolina most of her life. The scholarship is a “huge financial help,” particularly since Gomez is a single mother to 7-year-old Katherine.
“My father came here first as a migrant farm worker,” Gomez says. “After the amnesty in 1989, he was able to get us out of Mexico.”
At Armstrong, Gomez is majoring in political science and international affairs and Spanish. “I know I want to work with Hispanic people in some way,” she says. “I want to work with Hispanic children.”
Gomez has worked in a Head Start program for migrant workers, so she has experience working with children. “My daughter was in the program for three years,” she says.
Katherine was born when Gomez was a sophomore in high school. “I was going to school when she was going to school,” she says.
To make ends meet, Gomez works at Vaden Hyundai, selling cars. Despite her previous experience and an associate’s degree, she couldn’t find the type of job she wanted.
“I spent two months before I moved sending emails and sending out my resume,” Gomez says. “But two months after I moved here, I still didn’t have a job.”
A friend who works for a car dealership encouraged Gomez to apply at Vaden. “They were flexible to let me out two days for school and then I work the rest of the week,” she says.
“I’m learning. It’s a unique experience. Every day is different. I’ve had months where I sold one car a month, and months where I sold several cars.”
Gomez learned about Armstrong from her father, who lives in Georgia. “Melody Ortiz happened to be in Reidsville and he heard about it,” she says. “I applied and got accepted. I was homesick a lot. I actually thought about going back home and driving back and forth.”
But Gomez eventually adapted to Armstrong, and HOLA helped. However, she’s still under a lot of stress.
“I have the pressure of work and meeting the monthly sales goal,” Gomez says. “I have to meet deadlines for school. Sometimes I say, maybe I should quit school. What keeps me going is my little girl.
“I know my family struggled so long for the basic necessities,” she says. “I don’t want her to go through that.”
At 24, Gomez has maturity beyond her years. “I know it’s going to be a little rough. But it’s worth it,” she says.
“I do miss home, but I see a lot of needs in Georgia for the Hispanic community,” Gomez says. “I like Savannah. It’s beautiful and has all that history. Yet it still has a lot of issues, like crime, and I want to be part of the solution.”
‘I began to realize that Hispanics must speak up.’
Angela Hurtado is one of the scholarship recipients. “I think it’s amazing because it allows many students like me to go to college,” she says.
A native of Colombia, Hurtado came to the U.S. with her family 10 years ago. “It was really hard to come here,” she says.
In Colombia, Hurtado attended a private school. She was given English lessons, and at the time, didn’t understand why.
“We came to Florida and I didn’t understand that we were actually going to be here forever,” Hurtado says. “I didn’t know it until we moved to Atlanta.”
Normally an outgoing girl, Hurtado found it difficult to communicate with others, so she became withdrawn and quiet.
“To actually go out and speak to everyone in English was very, very tough,” she says. “At the beginning, I never wanted to go to school. Every day, I said I didn’t want to go. There were only two Hispanics at my school.”
The other students wanted to talk with Hurtado. “But I didn’t understand anything,” she says.
At school, Hurtado was enrolled in English as a Second Language classes. After two years, she had become proficient enough in English to be taken out of the ESL program.
By that time, the Hispanic population in Georgia had started to grow, and Hurtado didn’t want to leave the ESL program. “I wanted to go back with my friends,” she says.
“But I began to realize that Hispanics must speak up. Now I’m really talkative and I have a lot of friends who are black, white and Hispanic. I feel English is a part of me,” Hurtado says.
“I look at Colombia now and it’s a whole different world,” she says. “ I really feel like I am a part of two worlds.”
Some non-Hispanics haven’t been so welcoming to the Hispanic immigrants. But Hurtado says at first, she too, was close-minded.
“It made me mad that everyone called me Mexican. Now when someone calls me Mexican, I explain to them that Hispanics aren’t all Mexican,” she says.
“We have come here to work hard,” Hurtado says. “We are from different cultures and different countries. If you show people you care, they care about you, too. Then they open up to you and you can make a difference in someone’s life.”
When she first arrived, Hurtado saw few Hispanics, but now many more are living in Georgia. “It’s amazing to me,” she says.
Although Hurtado planned to attend college, she didn’t think it would be at AASU. Then she met Ortiz first at one conference, then another. When Ortiz showed up at her high school, Hurtado decided to apply to AASU.
“Everything ended up going the right way,” Hurtado says. “God’s will is for me to be here.”
Currently Hurtado is studying political science and international affairs so she can go to law school. Her goal? Becoming an immigration lawyer.
“Our parents have come to the U.S. for a reason,” Hurtado concludes. “We want to show them that we can succeed.” ƒç
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