Avanzando Provides Support, Mentoring and Community for UMKC Latinx Students

Program serves 250 UMKC students, many of them first-generation students

Sometimes it takes a crisis to make things happen. But good things can come from a crisis. That sentiment, shared by Theresa Torres, associate professor in the UMKC Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexual Studies, defines the evolution of Avanzando.

A decade ago, Latinx students at UMKC lacked a sense of belonging on campus and personal relationships with role models in the professional world for them to emulate. To address the crisis, community leaders worked closely to develop Avanzando, a program designed to provide support and resources to Latinx students. It was launched in 2011, initially as a way to support UMKC Hispanic Development Fund Scholarship recipients. 

Today, Avanzando communicates to Latinx students that there is a place for them at UMKC. It provides Latinx students academic support, mentoring, resources and connections to help them do well in school, graduate and find success in their careers.

“That first year, we started with 27 students and today we serve 250,” said Torres, who has worked with the program since its beginning and currently mentors three students through the program. “Many are first-generation students who need support and someone to answer their questions, give encouragement, help them through the ups and downs of college. We offer the resources and support to stay in school and graduate from school. The mentoring piece really helps with that.”

Ivan Ramirez, coordinator for the UMKC Multicultural Student Affairs Department and the Avanzando Latino Mentoring Program, agrees. “The program has proven to be a pillar in a student’s success, having 90 percent retention rates of our participating scholars,” he says. “What you don’t see on paper is the long-lasting mentor-scholar relationships that are built.”

“This program helped me get connected with professionals that are Latinx just like me, and that is something that is not easy to do. It has helped me become a leader, but overall, it has helped me become an even better human being.” 
– Henry Ortega-Hernandez

Avanzando mentors are volunteers from the faculty, staff and the community — and there is always a need for more. Most are Latinos, but that is not a requirement. Students are matched to mentors based on common goals and career interests, and meet regularly with mentors throughout their time at UMKC.

According to Torres, funding is one of the major barriers for many students, as they often maintain heavy work schedules to fund their college expenses. The Avanzando program partners with the Hispanic Development Fund to support scholarship fundraising efforts for Latinx students. Although Avanzando started as a program to support the Hispanic Development Fund scholars, its reputation now draws students looking for a sense of community and campus support.

That was the case for Henry Ortega-Hernandez, a first-generation college student double majoring in criminology and sociology. Ortega-Hernandez admits UMKC wasn’t his first choice – he transferred from Kansas State University due to family issues at home – but says he is very grateful to be a Roo. 

“I got involved with Avanzando because I felt alone, I didn't know anyone on campus and felt like I didn't fit in,” he said. “Avanzando felt like home in a way, it didn't make me feel like I was out of place. I would totally recommend this program to every student if I could reach out to all of them.”

Through the program, Ortega-Hernandez was connected to a huge community of Latinx students and professionals not only at UMKC, but from the entire city. And he was matched with several mentors that share his professional interests.

“This program helped me get connected with professionals that are Latinx just like me, and that is something that is not easy to do,” he said, “It has helped me become a leader, but overall, it has helped me become an even better human being.” 

According to Torres, there is a common misconception in the country that most Latinos are immigrants when in fact more than 60 percent are natural-born citizens. In Kansas City, the Latinx population has been part of the community for more than 100 years, including many leaders committed to improving the community, giving back and fighting discrimination. “It’s important for our students to know the history and impact of the Latinx population, and to learn these leaders have backgrounds and interests similar to theirs,” said Torres.

And that’s key to Avanzando.

“The program is designed specifically to increase the retention and graduation of Latino students,” said Ramirez. “We are intentional in our efforts to increase participation and the sense of belonging to our scholars.”

To learn about becoming an Avanzando mentor, contact Ivan Ramirez.