SOMERS, N.Y.--The Hispanic population has fewer students graduating from college than any other ethnic group in the county and one Somers resident is trying to change that.
Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, 54, is the founder and executive director of Latino U College Access, a nonprofit that helps Hispanic students get into college and supports them until they get their degree.
Acevedo Buontempo, who left a decade-long marketing career to work with local nonprofits in Westchester for 10 years, said she was inspired to launch Latino U in 2012 while she was helping her own daughters—now 24 and 21—through the admissions process for college.
“I became very aware of how complex, competitive and expensive the process was,” Acevedo Buontempo said. “I was going to graduate school for my master’s at Pace University and was doing research on educational equity and recognized that the Hispanic community had the lowest admission rates to college of all ethnic groups.”
According to the Pew Research Center, until 2013, Hispanics were the least enrolled ethnicity in college.
The same study showed that Hispanics are less likely to graduate with a four-year degree than other groups. In 2014, 15 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. It was the lowest percentage among the same age group of other ethnicities.
“That gap in education and the complexity of the process was really what inspired me to say that something needed to be done. There were a lot of great kids going to local high schools in Westchester that can go to college but are not achieving their goals because of the complexity and the barriers they face in admissions and financial aid.”
Latino U College Access’s mission is to increase college enrollment and college graduation rates among Hispanic youth.
Acevedo Buontempo is a first-generation Latino. Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to New York when she was 10 years old. She graduated Lehman High School in the Bronx, where coincidentally she met her husband of 30 years, Anthony Buontempo. She then went to Pace University, becoming the first person in her family to go to college.
There are two ways students find out about Latino U College Access: A guidance counselor can nominate them to be a Latino U Scholar or they can attend a college admissions and financial aid information session that the organization delivers in Spanish throughout Westchester County.
“The students we work with have high grades,” said Acevedo Buontempo. “They are motivated, high-achieving students in school. They are poised for success but are not achieving their full potential because they are either not applying to college or are underapplying.”
To date, there have been 100 scholars who have gone through the Latino U College Access program, now in its fifth year.
A majority of the students the organization helps are born in the United States.
“Because I work with Latino students, the assumption is that we are working with Latino immigrant students or undocumented students,” said Acevedo Buontempo. “However, most of our students are home-grown.
The reality is that 90 percent of the students we help were born in the United States. Like many of those who were here before us, they are the children of immigrants. Their families have become American citizens; their families have become permanent residents. Their families are contributing to the community and the economy.”
One of the first scholars who joined the program in 2013 exemplifies the difference the program can make in a person's life.
“At the time, the young man was referred to the program. He was struggling because he was homeless,” Acevedo Buontempo said. He had applied to several colleges and a prestigious university offered him a full scholarship. He graduated on the dean’s list.
“The young man recognizes that it was the support and mentorship that we gave during that difficult time that helped him to keep moving forward with his goals even though he was battling the challenges of being homeless at the time,” Acevedo Buontempo said.
Latino U Scholars are matched with a volunteer coach, who is trained and acts as a mentor and adviser during their senior year of high school. The mentors help with filling out college and financial applications and writing essays.
“We offer our students free ACT or SAT test prep because we recognize that many low-income students cannot afford test prep,” said Acevedo Buontempo. “So, we give them professional test prep for free.”
Latino U assisted another young man who was already a straight-A student in high school, but had never taken test prep.
“He had gotten a high score on his SATs but it was not high enough to get him into the top-tier schools that he wanted to apply to,” said Acevedo Buontempo. “We put him in an intensive 10-week test prep class and he raised his score by 300 points, which enabled him to be accepted into five Ivy League schools. He will be graduating from Princeton this May.”
Latino U continued to support that young man through the academic, social and emotional challenges he faced while he was at Princeton.
“We started out with just college access, but then we realized that just college admissions were not enough,” said Acevedo Buontempo. “Getting to college is not enough. When you are first-generation and low-income, you do not have a frame of reference or someone at home that can guide you through those challenges. Those of us who have had children go to college know that those first two years can be very treacherous as you are adjusting.”
Latino U now has a new college success program that continues to support students by matching them with a mentor they can talk to, bringing them in for workshops, helping them plan for the next step in their careers and introducing them to potential career opportunities.
“We want to take them to and through college,” Acevedo Buontempo said. “Making sure that they graduate and have the skill set for their chosen careers.”
One of the hardest challenges for Acevedo Buontempo at Latino U is her inability to meet demand.
“This year we had 50 applications come in for 30 spots,” she said. “We had to turn down 20 students and it was so hard to do that because we knew that they could really benefit from this.”
Like many other nonprofits, Latino U also needs more funding for capacity building and to be able to deliver more programs.
“We need to get people to invest in our organization and in the future,” Acevedo Buontempo said.
For more information about Latino U College Access, visit latinoucollege.org or its Facebook page.