In the fall of 1971, members of the Detroit Hispanic community, organizing through Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED), launched a program with the goal of giving young people from Southwest Detroit and surrounding neighborhoods leadership training and access to a college education. The Latino en Marcha Leadership Development Training Program (later renamed the Chicano-Boricua Studies Program) was conceived by community leaders in partnership with educational experts, many from Wayne State University, and funded by New Detroit, Inc., an organization created to address challenges faced by Detroiters after the 1967 civil unrest. Fifty students enrolled in the program, taking classes at Wayne State and working on community-focused research projects.
Over a half century later, the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (CLLAS) at Wayne State University, born from Latino en Marcha, continues to honor the legacy of its founders by graduating students ready to address the through careers in various disciplines. It does this by providing underrepresented students with access to higher education, courses in Latino/a and Latin American studies and leadership development opportunities.
This May, CLLAS saw a record number of students graduating and participating in its annual Nuevo Comienzo Latina/o/x and Native Student Graduation Celebration event. Many of the 71 participants were CLLAS alumni who had returned to Wayne State to earn graduate degrees. Among them were Southwest Detroit natives Daniela Silva Tilson and Vanessa Reynolds, both of whom graduated this May with a doctor of education (Ed.D.). Silva Tilson teaches high school math and spends her summers working with CLLAS to prepare incoming college students for the rigors of university math courses. Reynolds is a counselor with Wayne State University Office of Undergraduate Admissions and works closely with high schools in Southwest Detroit and Downriver communities to ensure that all students have access to the same life-changing opportunities that she had.
Also earning graduate degrees from Wayne State this year were CLLAS alumni Jorge Lopez (MS, Manufacturing Engineering), Gabrielle Lopez (M.B.A., Finance; Entrepreneurship & Innovation), Luis Chapa (M.S., Mechanical Engineering); Noribeth Mariscal (M.S., Civil Engineering) and Nathan Chavez (M.Ed., Learning Design and Technology).
In the past few years, CLLAS has made big strides in helping Latino/a students at Wayne State earn a college degree (note: while CLLAS programs are open to students of all backgrounds, 97%of participants identify as Latino/a or Hispanic). From 2015 to 2022, 170 CLLAS students graduated with their bachelor’s. Most recently, 40% of first-time college students from its 2019 cohort graduated in four years or less, an impressive and promising figure. The latest data showsthat 88 percent of CLLAS students are the first in their families to attend college and more than 75 percent graduated from a high school in Detroit.
The areas of study of CLLAS undergraduates earning degrees span the broad range of majors atthe university and include Abril Ayala-Rodriguez, a Cesar Chavez Academy High School alumna who earned a B.S. in Marketing and will be working in renewal energy at DTE Energy; Sergio Muñoz, a graduate of Western International High School who earned a B.S. in Global Supply Chain Management and works for Boeing; Emily Jaramillo, also of Western International, who earned a B.F.A., works as an aide to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and aspires to open a coffee shop in Southwest Detroit; and students who will be entering law, medical and other graduate school programs.
“Our students and graduates continue to follow in the footsteps of our pioneering alumni of the early 1970s,” states Micheline Silva, LLMSW, an academic advisor at CLLAS and coordinator of itsCollege to Career Program. Silva, who graduated from Wayne State with a degree in Psychology and later earned an MSW from the University of Michigan, participated in CLLAS as an undergraduate student and serving as student speaker at the same graduation celebration that she now oversees. “After the hard work and sacrifices, coming together to celebrate is like receiving a bendición from our community, elders and ancestors who made this moment possible.”
CLLAS faculty and staff point to increased support from the Wayne State administration as well as community and corporate partners as a major contributor to the rise in the number of students graduating. “We know what works and employ best practices to meet our students’ needs,” states Melissa Miranda-Morse, CLLAS Assistant Director. “For example, taking summer courses to catch up or get ahead on credit requirements, welcoming parents and families to connect with us, and cultivating and strengthening partnerships across campus and the external community.”
CLLAS students have access to advising, research and career opportunities, and direct liaisons to many offices on campus. Advisors and mentors work hard to develop strong bonds with each student; bonds that often last beyond graduation. “Our alumni serve as instructors, professional mentors, ambassadors and advocates. They are proud of the center and very devoted,” adds Miranda-Morse.
More than 2,500 students have participated in CLLAS (Latino en Marcha/Chicano-Boricua Studies) since 1971. The newest cohort of students is scheduled to begin classes on June 26, justdays after completing high school. They will undergo an intensive eight-week accelerated program (sponsored by DTE Energy Foundation) prior to matriculating as full-time college students in the fall.
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