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Community mentors connect with Latino students

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Yanet Hernandez (center), an engineer at ExxonMobil, chats with two Lee College students she is mentoring this semester through the Puente Project.

Photo: Lee College

​Yanet Hernandez wants to serve as an inspiration to young Latinos in college and she wants to help them attain their potential.

“Many Hispanic students haven’t had role models,” said the Cuban-born chemical engineer at ExxonMobil in Baytown, Texas. ”That’s one of the most important things: They need to see persons who have achieved what they want to achieve.”

This semester, Hernandez volunteered to participate in the new Puente Project Mentoring Program at Lee College, where she is mentoring two students. The program, which grew out of California, connects Latino students with community members who are committed to helping them break through barriers to success.

Lee is the fourth community college district in the state to host the Puente Project, which aims to increase the number of underserved students who transfer to four-year colleges and universities, earn college degrees and return to their communities as leaders and role models for new generations.

The program began in 1981 at Chabot College (California) and has since extended to other states through Catch the Next, Inc., a non-profit organization focusing on college readiness and completion that was recently honored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its mentoring and counseling efforts.

More than just mentoring 

In addition to mentoring, the project at Lee College encompasses integrated reading and writing, English studies, an introduction to Mexican-American studies and exposure to cultural events. Last month, Puente students at Lee College traveled to Austin to tour the Harry Ransom Center and Blanton Art Museum at the University of Texas, where they also attended a transfer orientation session.

“In Spanish, ‘puente’ means bridge, and that’s what we’re trying to do: make that bridge over from community college to a four-year institution for these students,” said Victoria Marron, Lee's project coordinator and director of the college’s $5-million Hispanic-Serving Institutions Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (HSI STEM) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite being the fastest-growing population on college campuses across the country, Latino students are completing degrees at a lower rate than their counterparts. In Texas, just 17 percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher, compared with 34 percent of all adults, according to a report released this month by Excelencia in Education. The group estimates that Latinos will need to earn 5.5 million degrees by 2020 for the United States to regain the top ranking in the world for college degree attainment.

Like Hernandez, all Puente mentors are professionals who have earned a college degree. They commit to spending at least nine hours per semester interacting with their mentees, sharing professional and academic experiences while motivating students to work hard to reach their goals. Project staff match mentors and mentees based on mutual interests in the STEM fields.

Making connections

Knowing she would have something in common with her mentor helped Lee College freshman Verenice Valencia quiet the butterflies in her stomach when meeting Hernandez for the first time this month at a Puente dinner held on campus. The event brought mentors and mentees together to get acquainted in a casual, fun environment complete with pizza and games to break the ice.

“Most people come into college not knowing what to do or where to go, but I’m not going to be alone,” said Valencia, a lover of math and the first in her family to attend college. “Our mentors guide us through it. I know I can overcome anything and at the end of the day, there are opportunities out there for me.”

For Adrian Vega, volunteering to be a Puente mentor gave him the chance to do more than just encourage his mentees to consider pursuing engineering. The hands-on, targeted approach of the program meant he would also play a part in ensuring his students are fully qualified to enter the workforce and excel in their chosen career, he said.

“Too many youth are not applying themselves,” said Vega, a project development engineer at ExxonMobil. “I want them to look at their schooling as the path to an ultimate goal; not just to get a job, but to continue learning and growing for the rest of their lives.”

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