USF Latino Scholarship Program: Creating generational change for good

The Hispanic population in the United States continues to grow consistently over the years, making an impact in the national economy, local politics, and communities in between. However, not all Hispanics have the same opportunities as people from other ethnic groups, and this disparity often can be seen in their educational backgrounds.

According to a June 2018 report from The Education Trust, Black and Latino adults that year were less likely to have completed post-secondary education than white adults in 1990. The percentage of Latinos who had attained a degree in 2016 was 22.6% compared to 47.1% of non-Hispanic white adults. The lack of educational opportunities can have negative consequences in the lives of Latinos, as a number of studies have found that those who don’t graduate from college have more chances of being unemployed or incarcerated, and many have to apply for assistance. 

The USF Latino Scholarship is one of the programs in the Tampa Bay region that seeks to tackle this issue. It was designed to make the University of South Florida a more diverse institution and to better connect Latinx students with the academic environment while giving them the tools they will need to succeed after graduation. The program was founded in 1992 by the Latin Community Advisory Committee whose members are local professionals and leaders of Latin heritage. It provides renewable scholarships to students from accredited high schools or community colleges in the Tampa Bay Area, many of whom are first-generation college students. 

Patsy Sanchez, director of USF Latino Scholarship and director of diversity and inclusion for the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity, says the program started with a couple of donors and sponsors, and as it grew, they started creating endowments with community organizations and businesses.

Today, they have more than 20 endowments with sponsors including the Helios Education Foundation, the owners of the Columbia Restaurant, and the Tampa Bay Latin American Medical Society. With these endowments, the advisory committee funds the education of students and invests the money to enhance the program.

Since its establishment, they have graduated 550 people and have awarded $3.7 million. The program is also known for its high graduation rate, which ranges between 90% and 98%. Right now, there are 147 students in the USF Latino Scholarship program. 

The real impact of the program is evident through the testimonies of graduates who now have a successful career as a result of the completion of their degrees.

Meet Jorge Soriano

Jorge Soriano is one of them. He was born in Cuba and came to the United States with his family when he was about 9 years old. Currently a financial planner, he says the scholarship was very important for his success because he was able to graduate without any debts. 

“Debt-free is a huge, huge privilege that not a lot of folks have,” says Soriano. “Also, being able to take additional classes in the summer, so that way I can kind of graduate a little bit faster. I don't think I would have been able to do that if it was not for the scholarships that I received. In particular, these types of scholarships really helped me.” 

Soriano was introduced to the program because his older brother was also a recipient of the scholarship in the early 2000s and he had attended the ceremony where they invited families and sponsors to celebrate the students in the program. He and his brother are first-generation college students. Soriano says that despite receiving other scholarships, this one was very meaningful for him because since he started the program, he had a special connection with his sponsor.  

Besides the money awarded, what makes the program special and distinguishes it from most financial aid is that donors are paired with students and become their mentors. Sponsors help the students with advice on how to navigate their careers, and they become another source of support in the education of the students. The mentorship program is extremely helpful, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college and those whose parents don’t speak English. The students can rely on a mentor as someone who has had similar experiences. 

“The idea of having people that serve as role models and having individuals that have the same background and the same challenges that you (the students) did growing up and still succeeded and became the individuals that they are, it's very uplifting,” says Sanchez. “It really serves as an inspiration. You look up to that and then you have that to know that it is possible, you see it in front of you that it is possible to succeed if you apply yourself and you do all the right things.”

The slogan of the program, “We must lift as we climb,” is representative of the student-mentor dynamic. Many graduates from the program become mentors themselves, such as Soriano. As a freshman at USF, he knew eventually he wanted to become a sponsor of the program to give back. He started writing an email that he wanted to send to Sanchez someday and that he saved as a draft in his inbox for almost 10 years. In the email, he wrote:

“By the time you get this message, it would have been almost 10 years since I started writing this email. This has been the longest saved draft I have ever had in my inbox history. Currently, it's 2008 and I am a freshman at USF. My goals are to continue to make my family proud and all the individuals that have helped me along the way. I changed majors from engineering to business finance recently. … After I graduate, I want to have a successful career. And one of my goals is to sponsor students through the USF Latino scholarship program.” 

In March 2018, Soriano remembered emotionally how he intended to finish writing the email and finally send it. It read:

“As my career grows, and I am now financially comfortable, I want to start by giving back to those that supported me from the beginning. And that's why it's finally my time. It's my time to start giving back. It's my time to act now and show support to a great organization. ... It's time to finally hit send to the email that I started writing 10 years ago.” 

Now, besides having a job as a financial planner, which he really enjoys, he is part of the Latin Community Advisory Committee, and he and his wife sponsor students in the program. 

Meet Elian Trujillo

The impact of the USF Latino Scholarship Program is also evident in current students, such as Elian Trujillo. He is a third-year psychology major with a minor in forensic behavioral health at USF. Originally from Colombia, he and his mother had to leave the country when he was a child because of a violent episode in their family. He always knew he wanted to go to college, but he was not sure how he would pay for it, especially because he is a first-generation student. The Latino Scholarship Program arrived as a solution. Trujillo says he was happy and grateful when he found out he had become one of the recipients.

“I felt almost relieved, you know, because this whole time, I was thinking, like, OK, I want to go to college, but how am I going to pay for it? And the answer popped right into my life, like, this is how you're gonna pay for it. So it was great,” Trujillo says.

The 20-year-old says that the program allows him to pursue his passion without having to worry about paying for his studies. He also says that he appreciates the support he has received from those in the program. For instance, Sanchez helped him when he was having trouble transitioning from high school to college. Trujillo also spoke about his mentor who he says makes him more confident and comfortable. 

“To me, it's like you can feel comfortable. Because you always have someone who's been there before, because she was also a graduate,” says Trujillo referring to his sponsor. “So she was in that same place as me and like, if I ever had any questions about school or if I was feeling nervous, stress, whatever, I could always just go to her and it's a great feeling.”

Like Soriano, Trujillo hopes to become a sponsor someday because he wants to provide the opportunity of post-secondary education to someone who is in a similar position as he was in high school.

“I know I'm not the only person who did not have the finances to go to college, I know that I won't be the only person like ever; there's going to be so many more people,” Trujillo says. “I mean, there are so many people now that have to take out thousands of dollars in student loans in order to be able to get an education and I want to be able to, you know, give that peace of mind to another student in the future. It's so important to be educated.”

The USF Latino Scholarship program celebrates students like Soriano and Trujillo in their annual ceremonies which they usually do at the beginning of the fall semester. Sponsors, graduates, new students, and their families, gather to recognize the achievements of the recipients. According to Sanchez, it is gratifying to see the families that they are helping, who have sacrificed a lot to give their children basic education. Many of them are immigrants.

Soriano explained that one of the most special things that the scholarship gave him was seeing how proud his mother was during those ceremonies.

“Having my mom being able to go to the ceremonies and see the joy that it brought her, honestly, it brought her more joy than it did me,’’ Soriano says. “And being able to see that, that's everything.”

Overall, the USF Latino Scholarship Program makes a difference in the Latino community in Tampa Bay because it is not only based on the funds. The program is about the connections that it creates between sponsors, graduates, current students, and all of the donors. Trujillo says it has become an important resource for him because he feels part of a family and a community. People who are involved in the program help each other, and they support the growth of the Latin community. They become the future professionals and leaders in the Tampa Bay Area, and they allow the Latin voices to be heard. 

“We're not just changing one life, we're changing many, many lives who are in turn changing lives,” Sanchez says. “Not only the ones in their families but also other lives. The work that they're doing in our community as the professionals that they become, in the area that they decide to, you know, be in later in the future, that is another example of changing a community.”

For more information, visit the USF Latino Scholarship Program and the USF Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity.
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Read more articles by Angela Cordoba Perez.

Angela Cordoba Perez is studying mass communications with a focus in journalism at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Growing up in Colombia, she developed an interest in writing and decided to pursue her dreams as a journalist. She has interned at WUSF Public Media and has written for the USF Oracle, the student newspaper. Even though she misses the mountain views in her home country, she is happy to use her diverse voice to tell stories about USF and the Tampa Bay Area. In her free time, she enjoys watching soccer and television, as well as calling her family and spending time with her friends.