Man on a Mission: Connecting Latinx Students

Personal experience enhances mentorship role

Iván Ramirez immigrated to the United States when he was 15 years old. He did not know anyone outside of his family or speak English. In his new role in Multicultural Student Affairs as senior coordinator of the Avanzando mentoring program, he is leveraging his personal experiences and education to increase the engagement of Latinx students at UMKC.

Ramirez is familiar with the challenges of transitioning from one culture and country to another.

“My dad had always worked in the United States, even before I was born,” Ramirez says. “We decided to move from Mexico to be together as a family when I was a freshman in high school.”

After arriving in the United States, Ramirez remembers himself as “silent.”

“I did all the things that high schoolers do — homecoming, going to football games — but I wasn't connected,” Ramirez says. “I wasn't able to attach to anything because of the language and cultural barriers.”

He says felt as if he was in the shadows and people were staring.

“I was with my small group of friends, but didn’t understand what was going on around me. The culture was different, the language was different and the educational system was different.”

His A-ha Moment

Ramirez’s parents both worked at Tyson’s Food and he felt that would be his path as well. But a neighbor saw his potential and took him to meet Uzziel Pecina, assistant teaching professor in the UMKC School of Education, who was at the University of Central Missouri at the time.

“He let me know that community college was a good path for first time college students.”

“I didn’t know what community college was. That is not a concept that we had in Mexico. But he convinced me. I went to community college and kept in touch with Dr. Pecina. When I graduated, he said, ‘That’s great! Now you have to go back and get your bachelor’s degree.’”

Ramirez started college at the University of Central Missouri and things began to click. He did earn his bachelor’s degree and started teaching. With Pecina’s continued encouragement, he completed his master’s degree.

It was through this organic experience that Ramirez uncovered the value of mentoring.

“I don’t want our students at UMKC to struggle the way I did. I want to do what Miss Gomez and Dr. Pecina did for me. It’s my priority to find a way that that works for each of our students, so there’s no need for them to be struggling.”

Part of his strategy is to reinforce something he’s learned from his mentors.

“We are part of something bigger. We’re here with a purpose. We don’t exist as a single person. There’s a collective.”

“I don’t want our students at UMKC to struggle the way I did."- Iván Ramirez

Ramirez believes that if one person succeeds, the collective succeeds.

“This comes naturally to me. As a Mexican Latino person, when I go back to Mexico, I see the collective. I see how people take care of each other in my neighborhood back home in Mexico.”

That connection is what Ramirez is trying to replicate with students at UMKC.

“It’s working,” he says. “I see that our students peer mentor organically. They are helping each other with homework. They help each other meet other people. It’s great to see.”

Helping Each Other

Adriana Suarez is a sophomore studying business administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management and a double minor in Latinx and Latin American studies and sociology. She came to UMKC through the KC Scholars program. She became involved with Avanzando her freshman year.

“Ivan was the first person to reach out to me from the university,” Suarez says. “Entering college, I had no idea what kinds of organizations were available to me as a Latina until Ivan sent out emails about a leadership retreat and the Avanzando program he coordinated.”

Adriana Suarez

Suarez had participated in leadership programs in high school, but not in a mentoring program like Avanzando.

“Avanzando has provided me an outlet to engage in the Latinx community, where I not only get to learn more about myself, but it has also taught me what it means to be a part of the Latinx community,” Suarez says.

Suarez finds Ramirez’s passion for supporting students, and his skills in pairing them with effective mentors to be incredibly helpful. But she discovered these attributes were critical during the time campus was closing because of COVID-19.

“When I didn’t know where I would be staying for the rest of the semester, Ivan helped me find resources that were available to students in my situation,” she says. “Not only that, my mentor checked in on me to see if I needed any help emotionally or academically. It was a situation that had never happened before, yet they did their best to support me.”

“Avanzando has provided me an outlet to engage in the Latinx community, where I not only get to learn more about myself, but it has also taught me what it means to be a part of the Latinx community.”- Adriana Suarez

Ramirez does not see Latinx students developing mentoring relationships in the Latinx community as having a foot in two worlds by staying connected to their country of origin while adjusting to life in the United States.

“It’s the same world,” he says. “But the goal is to find a place where people can be themselves. Once they are here, the goal is to be strong enough and secure enough in our culture and personality to use our voices on campus.”

The rise in animosity against Latinx and immigrant populations over the last four years have created challenges. Ramirez sees his role to move Latinos forward, even as he has felt at times that they have been regressing.

“I thought this challenge of assimilation and acceptance was going to be solved by the time I became an adult. But we keep moving backwards, though there are glimpses of successes and accomplishments that we all have.

The last four years have been hard on me as a professional, but also the students. They feel afraid. Just the uncertainty — whether or not their parents will be here the following day, or whether or not they will be able to have a job because of their status. That was something for me as a student that I didn't have to worry about, because we didn't have those challenges then.

But our community is really supportive. I know I'm one person, but there's a lot of people behind the program that support our students and they’re able to jump in there when the times are difficult.”

That has been Suarez’s experience.

“The Avanzando program definitely opens opportunities for its students to grow as people and professionals. It creates opportunity to build responsibility, ambition, confidence, social skills, and so many important life skills that help students, like me, advance their careers at UMKC. After all, that is what “avanzando” translates to in English — to move forward.”

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Published: Oct 15, 2020