Students throughout the Latinx community build family, find success and continue a legacy at UC

It was the 1990s and there weren’t very many Latinx students at the University of Cincinnati.

Fortunately there were student leaders like Rafael Rennella (Engineering and Applied Science ’95) who wanted to make campus a more open and inviting place.

This was a time to build community among Latinx students, encourage social activism and promote greater cultural awareness on the campus.

A native of Argentina, Rennella helped found a professional student group, Hispanic Engineers. He devoted long hours to the Emerging Ethnic Engineers program and became the first president of Latinos en Acción, now known as Latinx en Acción.

After graduation Rennella became a systems analyst at Cincinnati-based consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. Months later at age 26, he died from an asthma attack. A scholarship for UC students bears his name and three decades later Rennella’s legacy continues to inspire. 

Rennella’s advocacy paved the way for students like Diana Gutierrez Navarro, a fourth-year biological sciences major and officer in Latinx en Acción.

When Gutierrez Navarro arrived at UC from small-town Painesville, Ohio, she found a Latinx population, just not as large as she expected. She began to seek other Latinx students and after the first semester connected with Latinx en Acción, the student group founded by Rennella and continuing his mission so many years later.

“It made things better by the fact that I had more people to relate to,” she says of the group. “They understood how difficult or different it was actually being in higher education. I see a common face. I am able to make friendships that are long lasting or if even for a short time it’s nice to have.

“It also just provides a sense of community as well. One of our sayings at Latinx en Acción is ‘somos familia,’ meaning we are family. Regardless of where your original roots are from, we're there for each other. You can count on us. You can come to us.”

A Seat at the Table

This content series looks to explore the experiences and identities of diverse student populations at UC while shedding light on support, resources and opportunities available at the university.

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Making an effort makes all the difference

Wilmer Esquivel grew up in Cincinnati, though his family is initially from Guatemala. After graduating from Cincinnati Public Schools’ Winton Woods High School, he pursued UC because it was close to home, ultimately attending regional campus UC Blue Ash for his first two years due to its affordability.

“I wanted to stay close and not be in debt,” says Esquivel, now a fourth-year information technology major specializing in software app development, on UC’s Uptown campus. “Luckily I don’t owe anybody anything, and that’s good.”

Esquivel, a recipient of the Rafael Rennella, Hispanic Chamber and LULAC scholarships, works full time at a big-box store and lives at home with his parents to save money.

Initially he didn’t know anyone at UC, and the experience was compounded because his classes were primarily online and he lived 30 minutes away from campus. He made an effort at establishing ties and building community by joining UC organizations like Latinx en Acción and UC's Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). Through the Saber Latinx Mentoring Program at UC Blue Ash, he was able to work with local high school students. The Latinx Mentorship Program paired Esquivel with a graduate student mentor in chemical engineering who helped him navigate the UC landscape.

“There weren’t many Latinx students in my classes, especially in engineering,” he says. “I joined the student clubs to get more involved and connect with other Hispanic students.”

Clubs are a resource for many students, and Esquivel joined several including the UC Boxing Club.

“I make an effort to go to campus to interact, meet people and join the clubs,” he says. “For information technology, the online classes suit us because everything is on the computer. But I do miss the interaction with people every week, so I go to the meetings and spend time on campus.”

“Having so many different types of clubs shows the university is very accepting,” he says. “Having that space for Hispanic people shows the university cares.”

Esquivel points to campus events like those part of Hispanic Heritage Month, where he found students of all backgrounds eager to experience the culture. Student Gutierrez Navarro says UC’s promotion of inclusive events is one of the university’s strengths.

“I feel like it’s been done right in terms of the various inclusive events offered and that they don’t discriminate against who you are, what you are or how you identify,” Gutierrez Navarro says. 

Excelencia inclusiva

UC aims to create a more diverse community of thinkers, learners, educators and researchers.

In fall 2022, the university saw a 14% increase in Latinx undergraduate students from the previous year. Overall the university enrolls 2,218 Latinx students or 4.6% of the student population of 47,914.

Students of color at UC — which includes Latinx, Black, Asian, Native Hawaiian, Native Alaskan and students who identify as two or more races — make up 25.5% of the student body, making this UC’s most diverse population ever.

Community service, networking and belonging

Karen Vásquez Perez, an incoming third-year early childhood education major and current president of Latinx en Acción, says her organization along with other groups on campus are all working toward a similar aim: creating a safe environment that promotes the well-being of Latinx students on campus.

In addition to promoting equity and inclusion on campus, the group also highlights diversity within the Latinx community because there are cultural differences depending on what city, state or country someone’s family is from.

Volunteering, advocacy, professionalism and education are four pillars Latinx en Acción tries to incorporate into all its meetings, activities and programs, says Vásquez Perez. 

Latinx en Acción helps mentor and tutor children in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools and connects with area nonprofit and advocacy groups such as Su Casa and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to put on events such as activities for Hispanic Heritage Month. The group has also received support from UC areas such as the Office of Ethnic Programs & Services, the Division of Student Affairs, and the Division of Equity, Inclusion and Community Impact.

Vásquez Perez says she’s seen a gradual increase of support from these offices during her time at UC.

“Everyone is so eager to work with us on an event or meeting.”

“This year I’ve definitely seen so many more offices at UC,” she says. “Directors and especially our advisers have been very helpful to put us forward within the university community.”

For Paola Alcantara, a connection to UC came largely through Business Fellows, a program in the Carl H. Lindner College of Business that seeks to empower interested students with programming, professional development opportunities and scholarship support, with an overall focus of enhancing an inclusive learning community.

“That’s the program that I love the most, and just being involved in it since my freshman year has made a difference,” says Alcantara, a fourth-year student majoring in operations management and international business. “I honestly would not be doing as well as a student and professionally if not for Business Fellows.”

The program organized a study abroad trip for a few days in October 2019 to Toronto, Canada, for interested students. It left an impact on Alcantara who says she developed a “strong sense of community with Business Fellows through corporate visits, community engagement, cultural sightseeing and networking.”

“Business Fellows really has welcomed me,” says Alcantara. “I made many, so many friends, and most of the Latinos I know are through the program.”

Alcantara’s family is from the Dominican Republic, but she has been living in Fairfield, Ohio, since she was five. “So as much as I like to say I am Dominican, I am American, too.”

Alcantara is president of the student organization iCATS, which helps international students acclimate to American culture, and served as a PACE Leader (Professionalism, Academics, Character and Engagement) in the Lindner College of Business. She finds much of her identity rooted in what the college offers its students. The college’s willingness to highlight diverse student voices doesn’t go unnoticed, she says.

The college’s backing of LGBTQ students through promotion of events through social media stands out for her. The college also hosts Pride at Lindner, an event designed to empower and support LGBTQ students during National Coming Out Day.

Representation matters at Lindner and students from all backgrounds are highlighted with photos on one of the four video screens near the entrance of the college.

Students who embody four principles on what it means to have a meaningful career in business — professionalism, academics, character and engagement — are shown on the screens welcoming visitors. Alcantara’s own story has appeared there.

What does it mean to have a seat at the table?

“It really boils down to having representation. We would love to have someone at the front where people can say, ‘Hey, this person looks like me. We actually matter.’ It really is representation. We definitely want to see someone we recognize, someone we can relate to who understands what we’ve been through and who definitely knows the challenges, knows the setbacks and the obstacles we have overcome to be where we are at right now.”

— Diana Gutierrez Navarro

“It means to have a voice. It means to have an opinion and to be taken seriously. If we say that we need something and it is necessary for us to be successful and help UC overall, we definitely need to be able to speak our mind and be heard and actually see action taken. There has to be a plan. If we want change we can definitely make it happen, but we just have to plan for it and go with the plan.”

— Karen Vásquez Perez

“A seat at the table equates to representation matters. Latinx students, faculty and staff need to see themselves involved across campus, teaching in classrooms and in administrative roles. I can attest to the many times Latinx students have come up to me to share how important it is to see someone that looks like them and speaks Spanish. Latinx families at orientation have said the same. As such, as our campus continues to grow in enrollment, especially as we recruit and retain Latinx students, UC needs to also invest in recruiting and retaining Latinx faculty and staff.”

— Juan Guardia, UC dean of students

Identifying with faces and spaces

Juan Guardia, PhD, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students, says he has watched Latinx student involvement blossom since his arrival at UC in 2016. The climate for Latinx faculty has also improved with the establishment of the Latino Faculty Association in 2017.

“I believe the state of affairs for Latinx students at UC is promising,” says Guardia, noting a steady increase in Latinx student enrollment at the university.

“Can we do better?” he asks. “Absolutely. But I believe we have a solid foundation from which we can grow. Some successes that I have personally witnessed of our Latinx students have been their involvement across campus. Latinx students are orientation leaders, resident assistants and student government leaders. Their dedication to extracurricular activities all the while balancing their academic, work and familial needs is noteworthy.”

Guardia says the university’s commitment to the upcoming Center for Identity and Inclusion (CII) will assist Latinx and other students looking for additional physical space along with continued safe spaces to build community. The new center will be located in the Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center.

“All UC students that visit CII will have the opportunity to learn from one another in a space that fosters holistic student development, justice, equity, diversity and identity programming and learning and skills development,” Guardia said.

Yulia Martinez, a fifth-year engineering student and 2022-23 student body vice president, says she would advise high school students considering UC to get involved with student clubs and groups as a way to meet others.

“Even something as small as being part of a beekeeping club could be the difference between someone dropping out or staying, because they don’t know anyone,” says Martinez. “I remember my first semester roommate actually dropped out, and she said a huge part of it was that she felt like she didn’t know anybody and all she did was go to class and come back.

“I think that looking for those spaces that fit your identity is incredibly important,” she says.

Whether it’s UC’s Women’s Center, the LGBTQ Center, or the African American Cultural and Resource Center, to name a few, these spaces are available to all students.

“People just go there to do their homework and there’s such great ambience,” says Martinez of the different spaces. “It’s just like a culture that’s been passed down because people use the spaces because of word-of-mouth. The spaces are always full everytime I walk by, and everyone is so nice. It feels like that when you walk in and everyone wants to talk to you.”

“Can we do better? Absolutely. But I believe we have a solid foundation from which we can grow.”

— Juan Guardia, PhD | Assistant vice president
for student affairs and dean of students

The work continues

UC holds much promise for Latinx students, but some areas that continue to present challenges for students include adequate financial support and the lack of bilingual services to assist students and their families.

Gutierrez Navarro says there is definitely a need for more financial assistance for Latinx students. Federal legislation known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is sometimes part of the conversation for some Latinx students. DACA was approved in 2012 and designed to assist young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. 

It helps those who qualify with temporary protection from deportation and legal work authorization for a renewable period of two years. DACA’s protections are extended to youth completing high school or attending a university or college. The legislation does not make federal student aid, an important financial resource, available to DACA college students, though some scholarships and other resources are available.

“Personally, I always struggled with having any financial support in terms of what I can apply for and what is available to me because there are a lot of requirements,” says Gutierrez Navarro, who is a beneficiary of DACA. “You need to be able to check off this box, and check off that box, and there are times where I am not exactly sure I can check that box.”

Other Latinx students find scholarship support through UC’s Darwin T. Turner Scholars Program and the Cincinnati Pride Grant. Another UC award, the Marian Spencer Scholarship, offers a full ride to Cincinnati Public School graduates. All of these programs look to further diversity at UC.

Another challenge that Latinx students and their families may face is a language barrier during the application process. UC has a financial aid adviser who is proficient in Spanish and admissions officials want to make financial aid and other information available in Spanish online.

“During my freshman year, I was the one translating for my parents, so it was a little difficult. Some things do get lost in translation, so it makes it very, very challenging,” says Gutierrez Navarro. “It would definitely provide a relief to have access to these resources and be able to read it in your own first language.”

Vásquez Perez says it would be great to have more scholarships assisting Latinx students, more bilingual staff and faculty and additional translation services.

“We have all encountered having to translate for our parents since we were as young as six years old,” says Vásquez Perez. “It’s normal, but we still would like to see it  change."

Despite the challenges, both Vásquez Perez and Gutierrez Navarro say they would recommend UC to Latinx high school students. 

“I think the first piece of advice for these students is that it is not easy and we definitely have more cultural and language barriers,” says Gutierrez Navarro. “But with the support of Latinx student organizations, we can definitely help in their success."

Vásquez Perez adds, "My parents had to leave school in the third grade to work in the coffee fields. We have a different perspective of college. It’s not all easy, but it’s worth it."

Do you prefer Latino, Latina, Latinx or Hispanic?

In 2019, the Pew Research Center released a report about how adults with Latin American and Spanish roots self-identify. Two dominant preferences are Hispanic or Latino, but a new gender neutral designation, Latinx, has emerged as an alternative in media, corporations, local governments and on university campuses.

The U.S. government first used the term Hispanic in 1970 after organizations lobbied the federal government to collect data on the population. In the 1980 Census, the term Hispanic appeared. 

By the 1990s the term Latino emerged as an alternative, as Hispanic placed an emphasis on Spain, and some felt it was too tied to colonization. But during the 2000 U.S. Census both designations were used for self-identification. 

Latinx has emerged from the LGBTQ community as a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino that challenges the gender binary. At UC, the use of Latinx is increasingly used on the university website and within communications, although some students, staff and faculty have other preferences for self-identification. 

The Pew survey found that 23% of U.S. adults who self-identity as Hispanic or Latino say they have heard of the term Latinx, and only 3% say they use it to identify themselves. The vast majority of Hispanic or Latino identifying adults had not heard of the term Latinx.

UC Dean Guardia says the various terms associated with the Latinx/a/o community differ widely and geographically. “Latinx has been utilized in the last 10 years as it allows for the inclusion of gender neutral/nonbinary individuals,” he says. 

“In addition and most importantly is how a Latinx individual chooses to self-identify. When that person shares their preference, it should not be debated, just accepted and respected,” Guardia continues. “For example, I identify as Cuban American and Latinx/o. It is always important to me and many other Latinx/a/o community members to self-identity with their or their families’ country of origin. It honors and respects where their family is from and a way in which we remain empowered and grounded.”

Additional credits: Andrew Higley, Kerry Overstake and Margaret Weiner/UC Marketing + Brand

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