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LASER connection Latino students and mentors find focus. Page 4



Interim president Joseph Alutto stopped by in February to tell LASER founder Frederick Luis Aldama that he had won the 2014 Distinguished Scholar Award. The LASER program itself recently received the university’s Emerging Community Engagement Award for 2014.

The LASER connection Latino mentors and students draw upon their shared heritage to boost success in college. “We found the missing piece of the puzzle.” —Frederick Luis Aldama, director of Latino studies and LASER founder


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rederick Luis Aldama is a man with laserlike focus. He identified a problem—Latinos are the most underrepresented minority on college campuses—and decided to do something about it. The mentoring program that Aldama started at Ohio State is the first of its kind in the nation, serving students all the way from high school to the Ph.D. level. It is aptly named LASER—Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research. Back in 2009, Aldama—who is Ohio State’s director of Latino studies, a University Distinguished Scholar and the Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English—brought together a small group

of Latino students and proposed a mentoring system with graduate students working with Latino undergraduates. It was so successful that in 2013 he expanded the program to include high school students. Now, more than 200 Ohio State undergraduates have been trained as mentors and are helping 80 Latino students in area high schools (and one in Missouri; see “The perfect match,” page 7). About 25 graduate students are mentoring undergraduates. And the program keeps evolving. LASER recently started a chapter at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, just north of Columbus. Next year, Aldama is taking LASER to middle schools. Two students—the younger siblings of high schoolers in the program—already have enrolled.


LASER light JORDAN LOEWEN 2011, English and Film Studies

Guadalupe Medina, left, is both a mentor and a mentee. Here, she talks with middle-schooler Adriana Del Valle, who got a head start with LASER because her older brother (photo, page 8) is involved.

“Suddenly, I had a community.” —Guadalupe Medina, student

Academic rigor Mentoring programs for Latinos exist on other college campuses, but most of them focus on social and cultural activities, Aldama said. “LASER is different because it’s an academically rigorous program. We found the missing piece of the puzzle. We pair students with someone who is not much older than they are, who looks like them, who shares their culture and can provide them with an academic community.” In spearheading LASER, Aldama aimed to increase Ohio State’s Latino enrollment, which stood at only 3 percent. He also wanted to make an impact statewide; only 66 percent of Latino students in Ohio graduate from high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While the state’s Hispanic population numbers just 350,000—about 3 percent

of the total—it grew by 63 percent in the past decade, challenging the educational community to support and foster progress among students. LASER students meet weekly with their mentors, who tutor, coach and cajole. The mentors help high school students prepare for standardized tests and apply for college. Once students are at the university, mentors guide their course work and urge them to pursue scholarly research. They also provide links to community members and professors who can help them reach their goals, land internships or find jobs.

If not for an artsy graduate student named Theresa Rojas, Jordan Loewen is convinced he’d still be drifting through college. Instead, he graduated as the first LASER mentee and received a full scholarship to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he’s working on his master’s degree in divinity. Of Puerto Rican descent, Loewen was the first in his family to attend college. He graduated from Grove City High School in suburban Columbus and enrolled at Ohio State with the idea of becoming an English teacher. But when it came time to apply to graduate school, he felt unfocused and overwhelmed by the paperwork. A friend referred him to Latino studies director Frederick Luis Aldama, who invited Loewen to LASER’s first organizational meeting. Loewen was paired with Rojas, a Ph.D. student in English and a prolific painter. She pushed him to higher levels of scholarship and was a ruthless editor. He went through 10 drafts of his admission essay before she okayed it. They talked often about his goals, and he realized that while he liked academia, he was more interested in building relationships and volunteering with his church. After that breakthrough, he applied successfully to Princeton. “If it wasn’t for LASER and Theresa, I might still be stumbling through another year or two of undergraduate studies,” Loewen wrote in an essay for Ohio State’s Hispanic journal, ¿Que Pasa, OSU? “Instead, I am on the path to a great future because she was willing to give her time and share her drive with someone starving for inspiration and identity.” n

Obstacles to overcome Elena Costello graduated in 2007 with degrees in economics and Spanish and is now the program manager for LASER. “It’s great, satisfying work. I love seeing

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Tomas Perez, right, and high school student Nick Alarcon talk at the cafe in Hagerty Hall.

Ohio. Recruiters traditionally the parents and kids realize that have focused on top-ranked they have a real possibility to go Latino students from Texas and to Ohio State,” she said. Florida. Those activities con“But there are also challenges. tinue, but the university also is Many of these students are the significantly strengthening relafirst generation going to college, tionships with Ohio high school and neither they nor their parand middle school counselors. ents know much about financial And thanks to LASER, Latino assistance and ACTs and the high school students in the college application process.” Columbus area have a connecSupport from the program tion to Ohio State that didn’t has been invaluable to Valentin exist before. “We’re doing so Hernandez of Galloway, Ohio, much to get them engaged and father of LASER mentee Karla increase their college readiness,” Hernandez. Valentin, who didn’t Zepeda said. attend college, said Karla’s menAlong with being matched tor, Cinthia Rodriguez, helped her prepare for the ACT and Karla Hernandez, shown with her father, Valentin, at a banquet in March, with mentors for tutoring, local students are invited to educaapply to colleges. She has been received the 2014 LASER High School Scholar Award. tional events on the Columbus accepted to Ohio State Marion campus, including lectures by nationally dren in the country were Latino, accordand Otterbein. known Latinos such as PBS anchor Maria ing to the Pew Hispanic Center, a national His 14-year-old daughter, Vanessa, will Hinojosa and film director Alvaro Rodriresearch organization. Comparable figbecome one of the first middle school ures for whites and blacks were 31 percent guez, keynote speaker at the third annual student mentees. Latino Role Models Day in early April. and 27 percent, respectively. “I am so excited about the doors openThey can attend professional development But even students from more financially ing for Karla. And now Vanessa has the secure families face obstacles, Zepeda said. workshops to explore careers and prepare chance to follow in the same steps as her for college. “Some of the teachers and guidance counsister,” Hernandez said. Mentees often bring family members selors don’t think of Latino students as Yolanda Zepeda, assistant provost in along on campus tours and to special college material. They think their job is to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said go to work.” Consequently, they steer them celebrations, such as the Day of the Dead Ohio State is actively recruiting Latino festivities in November. That way, younger toward vocational school or the trades. students and is aware of the barriers that siblings find it natural to sign up for Ohio State is tackling the issues, limit access to a college education. LASER and see college as part of their Zepeda said. The university is increasFor some Latinos, the problem is future. ing efforts to recruit Latinos who live in money. In 2010, 37 percent of poor chil6

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Kayla Calvillo with Carlos Mendez, recipient of LASER’s 2014 Undergraduate Mentor Award

The perfect match Research is in Kayla Calvillo’s blood. The 18-year-old high school student from Wentzville, Mo., tackled her college search with the same drive she applied in the school laboratory as she studied a novel method of cell transplantation. To succeed in the lab, she had to dig deep, peel back layers, unearth discoveries. That’s also what she did when she landed on Ohio State’s website last summer. Her first hit produced information about the university’s biomedical engineering program, Calvillo’s area of interest. She kept probing. “I wondered if Ohio State offered a way to be involved with my Latino heritage,” she said. She would be the first in her family to pursue a degree, and having experienced racism in high school, she knew she wanted support in college. A few more keystrokes led her to LASER. It was just what she needed, she thought, but living so far from Columbus, how could she work with a mentor? Calvillo searched the list of LASER mentors online and discovered a rising sophomore named Carlos Mendez, a biomedical engineering major from Dayton who had come to Ohio State as a Morrill Scholar and became involved in LASER

right away. In his bio on the website, Mendez wrote that he knew a lot about personalized scholarship searches and essay writing, and that he wanted to share what he knew with other people. It sounded like a perfect match, Calvillo thought. Should she approach him? Would Mendez consider taking on a longdistance mentee? She sent him an email asking for his help. Mendez responded without hesitation. Yes, he would help her. “I thought she was very motivated and intelligent,” he recalled. And with that, Calvillo became LASER’s first—and at this point, only— long-distance mentee. The two students collaborated via email, texts, Skype sessions and phone calls. Mendez reviewed Calvillo’s essays for college applications and scholarships. He recommended study guides, which helped Calvillo raise her ACT score from 26 to 30. He also provided emotional support when she won a major science award in St. Louis and some of her peers complained, saying she’d been honored only because she was a minority student. “Carlos reassured me that I’d won because of my abilities,” Calvillo said. “He told me he’d encountered the same prejudices, and that I shouldn’t pay any

attention to those people, and the experience would help me be a better person.” Mendez could empathize. He had been the only Hispanic in his high school. At Ohio State, he was aware of only one other Latino student in his department. Calvillo will soon join the ranks; she has been accepted into Ohio State’s engineering program. And she recently learned more exciting news: she won the highest level of the Morrill Scholarship, which covers all expenses. “I started crying when I found out, and the first person I called was Carlos,” she said. When she arrives in Columbus for the fall semester, Calvillo will continue her friendship with Mendez. She hopes to follow his example and mentor a high school student herself. Her goals include going to medical school or doing biomedical research. Ultimately, she wants to change perceptions about Latinas. “Right now, when you Google ‘Latina women,’ you come up with a bunch of dating sites. I want to show people that Latinas can also be innovators and poets and scientists,” she said. “And if I can bring that message to high school students, that would be really great.” n

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LASER light ELENA COSTELLO 2007, Economics and Spanish Linguistics Elena Costello loves her job as program manager for LASER. Her enthusiasm stems from her belief in the program’s value. Costello, the child of a Mexican mother and an Irish American father, was born and raised in Columbus and graduated from Upper Arlington High School. “I felt isolated and faced a lot of racism in high school,” she said. “The racism was less overt when I reached the university. I wish there had been something like LASER when I was in high school or an undergraduate.” Costello matches the LASER mentors with high school students. She visits schools to speak with guidance counselors and encourage students to take advanced classes and understand what it takes to be admitted to a university. Fluent in Spanish, she reaches out to Latino parents. “I want to show them that Ohio State is a welcoming place for Latinos,” she said. She has hosted several open houses for parents and families and plans more. Costello also brings in speakers and arranges special events, including Latino films, concerts and lectures, as well as Latino Role Models Day, which is open to high school students enrolled in LASER. n


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High school student Javier Del Valle, right, gets help with navigating the college application process from Mitch Anderskow.

The efforts are paying off. Enrollment of Latino students at Ohio State last fall was up 10 percent over the previous year. And retention rates for Latino students exceed the national average.

Success stories Beyond the statistics, most telling are the personal stories of enrichment and success for students. The first LASER mentors and mentees have graduated and are flourishing. There’s Jordan Loewen ’11, now working on a master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Christopher Gonzalez ’12, an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-Commerce. (See “LASER light” sidebars.) Both credit their mentors for playing a role in their success.

LASER also helps Latino students fight isolation. Guadalupe Medina, who graduated in May from the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, said she felt something was missing from her college experience but couldn’t pinpoint it. Then, in her senior year, she discovered LASER. “Suddenly, I had a community and all these resources I didn’t know about. I found my niche,” she said. With the support of her mentor, graduate student Nic Flores, Medina decided to pursue her research interests and apply to graduate school. In March, she won LASER’s Mentee Award for Scholarly Success. Some students come from areas with significant Latino populations. Madeline

A productive life Frederick Luis Aldama, founder and director of LASER, has built a long list of credentials. He is the Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio State. He teaches Latino/ Latina and Latin American postcolonial literature, film, comics and Frederick Luis Aldama narrative theory. He has written 19 books and countless articles. And most recently, he received

the university’s Distinguished Scholar Award for 2014. But he’s quick to admit that his life could have taken a different turn. Aldama was born in Mexico. His father was a native, and his mother was American, of Guatemalan and Irish heritage. As a young boy, Aldama moved with his mother to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then to a rough neighborhood in California’s north central valley. One night, a friend asked him to go riding with him and some older kids. Aldama chose not to go; his friend ended up in jail for robbing a convenience store.



LASER light Elias Alvarez and high school junior Natalia Welton-Torres at the Ohio Union, where they met for a mentoring session.

Stockwell, a LASER mentor from Lubbock, Tex., attended a high school where 30 percent of her class was Latino. “It can be very isolating at first,” said Stockwell, who is a Morrill Scholar. “It was weird not to see people like me.” She found fellowship through the Latino Student Association and Ohio State’s Multicultural Center, as well as support and encouragement from professors and fellow students. “Being at Ohio State gave me a wider idea of home,” she said. “I realized I was leaving my family in Texas but getting a bigger family here.” n Learn more

Aldama believes he could have been busted, too, just for being in the car. It was luck that he’d stayed home that night, but it was deliberate action by an adult that helped Aldama next. “A teacher I respected pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re smart, you can have a great future and you need to get focused on school.’” That was enough to motivate Aldama. He went on to earn a degree from the University of California, Berkley, and a doctorate from Stanford. In founding LASER, Aldama didn’t want to trust students’ futures to luck. “Everyone has the support they need to live productive lives,” he said. n

CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ Ph.D. 2012, English Texas native Christopher Gonzalez came to Ohio State in 2009 as a doctoral candidate in English and benefited from LASER as both a mentor and a mentee. No sooner had Gonzalez started at the university than LASER founder Frederick Luis Aldama recruited him to be one of the first mentors. Although his coursework was heavy, Gonzales didn’t hesitate. “Before I began the Ph.D. program, I taught high school English for seven years, and I understood that often students didn’t have someone to turn to,” he said. “They didn’t have someone to pattern themselves after, and they really needed that.” Gonzalez helped four students prepare for graduate school, including David Bueno ’12, who went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University and is now an engineer in New York City. While Bueno was self-directed, the next undergraduate Gonzalez mentored needed more guidance. The young man, nicknamed Coco, was a graduate of Westland High School in Columbus. A part-time construction worker, he was taking classes at Columbus State Community College with the goal of entering Ohio State.

Gonzalez discovered they shared similar backgrounds. Both of Gonzalez’s grandfathers were bricklayers, and Coco’s father was a mason. As the first members of their families to go to college, Gonzalez and Coco both struggled with convincing their families that pursuing a higher education was worthwhile, even if it meant years of sacrifice before the rewards of a paycheck would kick in. Coco aspired to be a writer or English teacher. He often came to his mentoring sessions with notebooks filled with poetry and essays. “We spent equal amounts of time on his writing skills and also talking about what it’s like to be us,” Gonzalez said. “I would share experiences, and his face would light up and he’d say, ‘That’s exactly what I’m going through.’ “That’s the value of LASER. Sure, it’s important to help students with certain skills, but it’s also an important vehicle to remind these students that they aren’t alone, that others have gone through these ups and downs.” As Gonzalez helped Coco find his way, he himself benefited from his relationship with his own mentor, Aldama. The two collaborated on several projects and co-wrote a book, Latinos in the End Zone, published in November. “Frederick has changed my life and career,” said Gonzalez, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce. “I wanted to do the kind of things he was doing. Without him, it would have been more difficult for me. He is the mentor par excellence.” n

@OhioStateAlumni  MAY • JUNE • 14


LASER connection