Theelevator ride at New York University’s (NYU) Helen and
Martin Kimmel Center for University Life didn’t just transport
this bunch of high schoolers to the 10th floor – it
transported them into a world that was largely foreign to them.
“Wow,” said one male student, backpack slung over his shoulder. “This
elevator has carpeting. We don’t have carpeting in mine.” The remarks
prompted his classmates to both laugh nervously and shake their heads in
Once the elevator doors opened, the group – about 10 of them –
stepped into a large room, two sides of which were floor-to-wall windows
providing a crystal-clear view of New York City’s skyline, the sounds of a
vibrant Washington Square Park emanating from below.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, and while New York City was awash in a festive
atmosphere on a sparkling warm day on the cusp of spring, these students,
and more than 350 like them, had ventured to NYU for some serious learning:
about their future.
The students came together for a leadership summit that opened the
Latino College Expo Inc. Since it’s inception 22 years ago, the nonprofit
Expo has endeavored to “elevate the educational aspirations” of New York
City-area students, particularly those of Hispanic heritage.
The students had traveled from across not just the city’s five boroughs,
but from Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut, some with parents and
others with high school guidance counselors. The group – mostly
Hispanic, some Black and Asian-American – were from inner-city public
schools, prep schools and boarding schools.
For many students, who were in their sophomore or junior years in
high school – programs were designed to demystify higher education – to
not just impart skills on how to prepare academically for the transition but
how to navigate financial aid, the admissions process, and campus life.
“It’s always an honor to do this,” said an excited Antonio Aponte, the
driving force behind the Expo, as he addressed the students in the opening
sessions. “I want you to be a sponge. I want you to absorb.”
Aponte, who serves as director of education services at the Boys’ Club
of New York, was inspired to launch the Expo more than two decades ago
after witnessing a nagging trend that dissuaded many Hispanic students
from seeking higher education. He was troubled that many didn’t think
college was right for them, and that family and financial obligations would
preclude them from attending college.
Handling multicultural affairs and retention at State University of New
York’s (SUNY) Purchase College at the time, Aponte would visit schools
and attend college fairs, and discovered that many Hispanic students were
not asking the right questions. Students were unclear on finances, on
access, on commuting versus living at school.
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by Jeff Simmons
“It’s always an honor to do this,”
said an excited Antonio Aponte,
the driving force behind the
Expo, as he addressed the
students in the opening sessions.
Latino College Expo:
Getting a Leg Up
“When I would talk to them and say I worked at SUNY-Purchase, they
would say that’s too far,” he said. “I realized that we needed to get them to
open up and understand. I wanted to empower them a little bit more.”
The outgrowth of that concern was the Latino College Expo, held in its
first year at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and later at Pace
University, both in Lower Manhattan. Every year, the event has been held on
a Saturday to avoid students having to skip school.
“We needed to do a fair and give them some ownership, to give them a
presence,” Aponte said. “To this day, it’s still a labor of love. I have a fulltime
job, but we’ve kept it going.”
The Expo has grown in size and reputation, drawing students from a
wider swatch of the Northeast while attracting new participants to showcase
their educational institutions. The event became so popular that it was
split into two components four years ago: a leadership summit offering
workshops in the morning followed by an exhibition. About 1,000 students
routinely attend throughout the day, but demand overwhelmed space, and
forced Aponte to cap the leadership summit at 400.
While Hispanic college attendance has somewhat improved during the
Expo’s existence, Aponte said, many students still face the same tug-of-war
pitting family and financial obligations against academic studies. His hope,
echoed by the volunteers who join him each year, is that the Expo provides
a forum for students to listen and comprehend that college is possible, and
to sit with peers experiencing similar dilemmas, fears, and hopes.
“If we could get all of you into college, this would really be a transformation
of this city,” Dr. Pedro Noguera, professor of education at NYU, said
to the students, who were riveted by his words. “You don’t go to college to
get a job. You go to college to get a career. Hopefully, you go to college to
get a career that you love.”
It wasn’t just a labor of love for Aponte, but for the volunteers who
strategize to get the word out each year with little funding but a lot of heart.
Support comes from the Boys’ Club of New York, the NYU Metropolitan
Center for Urban Education, and parent and student volunteers.
After opening remarks, students hurried to two other floors and into
smaller sessions. Workshops this year were titled “Lights, Camera, Action
& Oral Presentation,” which offered insight to prepare for auditions and
skills to improve public speaking, and “Gaining Admission and Affording
College Through ‘Free Money,’” which imparted advice on crafting competitive
applications and financial aid paperwork, and adopting other measures
to make college more attainable and affordable.
Students crammed into one seminar on “Life After Prep School/High
School” to grill alumni on what happens after high school, while another
seminar, newly added, asked student athletes “Are You Ready?” to apply for
Division I, II, and III programs. “Your performance, both academically,
and athletically, will impact scholarship
eligibility and interest from
coaches,” the description read.
There was one seminar titled
“Living Out the College Experience,”
led by five students from the
Brothers of La Unidad Latino,
Lambda Upsilon Lambda University
Inc. The description of the workshop
said, “attendees will learn about the
commitments, opportunities and
benefits of college life.”
Topics ranged from academic
demands to extracurricular activities,
and the five – four of whom still
attend NYU, the fifth a recent graduate
now preparing for law school –
to student leadership, social life and
other unique aspects of college life.
Darwin Araujo, vice president of
the fraternity, and his classmate Elvin
Marmol told students to ask any
questions that come to mind. Initially,
since many students had never been
to NYU before, they asked ones about
the area: Where is the closest
McDonald’s? How do you get to the
Empire State Building from here?
But after some giggles, the questions became more serious and the seminar
developed into a candid discussion about the transition to college life.
If anything, the fraternity brothers tried to impart a lesson in tough
love, in hopes of resonating more with students who might slack off in high
school classes. “It falls on you if you don’t go to class. The responsibility
shifts on you. You have to put in the word,” Araujo said. “It’s going to be
hard for you. You will have to adjust.”
Students initially reluctant to speak began peppering the fraternity
brothers with questions: What about Advance Placement courses? Does
taking them earlier make it easier? What is a major? Can I take two minors?
What if I don’t know what I want to major in? Where are the dorms?”
Then one long-haired young woman, situated in the front row, raised her
hand, and asked if being Hispanic helps in the admissions process. “Don’t
you have a better chance of getting in because you are a minority?” she asked.
The fraternity brothers dismissed the notion that ethnicity trumps hard
“New York University is very selective,” added Johnny Méndez. “What
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George Cintron with son Brian, an Ozone Park,Queens, resident with one son in college,
another on the way to college this fall, and a third now exploring college
helps you more is being involved in your school. It’s not just that you are a
minority. It’s what you achieved in high school.”
Marmol quickly noted that the admissions process is one step, but not
the end of the road. “Getting in is only the beginning,” he said. “Staying in
college is the challenge.”
After the session, a number of students lingered, plying the five with
more specific questions, about AP courses, campus life, and room and
board questions. Meanwhile, their parents were not left to count the hours
until the seminars ended.
At this leadership summit and Expo, they also were put back in the
classroom. Close to two dozen parents attended that morning and, after the
opening remarks, stepped into a session called “Becoming a Partner in the
At the table in front of them sat three parents and a moderator, who
also translated all remarks into Spanish. The advice was both forceful and
delicate, representing the understanding that not all parents came
equipped with equal levels of knowledge about the college process.
“When I say ‘beg,’ you go out there and beg,” one parent panelist
offered, insisting that parents should seek as much financial assistance and
scholarships as possible to defray expenses.
Several parents indicated that their children would be the first in the
family to attend college. “My biggest fear is how am I going to pay for college,”
one parent in the audience said. Others seemed nervous, jotting
down notes, timidly asking questions. “Should I visit the college?” one
mother asked, sparking a murmur in the room, and a chorus of “Yes.”
“Absolutely,” the parent panelist said. “It’s ideal to go when they are in
session. I recommend you take your kid. You look at the school. You look
at the surroundings.”
George Cintron, an Ozone Park, Queens, resident with one son in college,
another on the way to college this fall, and a third now exploring college,
said the visits are necessary to allay parental concerns and rein in
Cintron said one visit to a Maine college with his son turned him off immediately
when he saw not one, not two, but three beer cans littering the campus.
“That was too much for my son,” he said. “One would have been too many.”
And, when visiting campuses, he and other panelists stressed not to just
show up, but to make appointments with admissions officers on campus.
Such visits will help parents acquire more information, and to stand out from
the crowd of applicants all clamoring for attention, access, and financial help.
Cintron’s son Brian said his father’s encouragement is helping to ease
the transition the most. “One of the biggest things my dad did was being
there and listening,” the 18-year-old said. “I valued his input, and I valued
it so much more after he heard what I had to say.”
This past December, Cintron, who currently attends the Hotchkiss
School in Connecticut, received word that he’d received Early Decision
acceptance to the highly regarded Williams College, a private, liberal arts
college in Williamstown, Mass.
At the leadership summit and Expo, his father said, parents and students
could get a leg up, learn tips and tricks that help to ease the frustration and
anxiety of the college application process. His son shook his head in agreement,
pointing out the involvement of student leaders in the seminars.
“Kids come here and can relate,” Brian Cintron said. “You always hear that
college is important and getting an education is important. But hearing it from
someone who has had the same experience makes it much more personal.”
The workshops were only half of the Expo. After three hours of listening to
advice on everything from choosing a major to settling in far from home, students
then had a chance to turn the tables – or, more aptly, to visit the tables.
The same room in which students first listened to opening remarks
from a stage was now transformed into long rows of tables, equipped with
everything from pamphlets on dorm life and pens and other giveaways to
tuition costs and information on campus visits.
This year, 68 tables were occupied, with representatives – many Hispanic
faces speaking in Spanish with students and parents – from colleges and universities,
and educational organizations. Several colleges within the City
University of New York system – such as Hunter, Baruch, Queens and
Lehman colleges – attended along with those from within the State University
of New York system, from Binghamton, Brockport, Cobleskill and Oswego.
Representatives from both private and public colleges, such as Adelphi
University, the University of Bridgeport, Yale University, University of
Maryland, and University of Virginia, as well as Providence, Sarah
Lawrence, St. Joseph’s, and Wellesley colleges, also saw steady throngs of
students hoping to make a connection.
James Rodríguez, a 31-year teacher in the New York City public school
system, said the Expo gives Hispanic students a fighting chance to succeed.
Rodríguez should know. He has spent a good portion of his career analyzing
the Hispanic dropout rate, and striving to elevate the rates of Hispanic
students advancing to higher education.
“I learned early on that, for the most part, there were not any postsecondary
programs that catered to Latino students,” he said.
He struck up a friendship with Aponte decades ago, when Aponte was
at Purchase and would visit his school to talk with students about attending
college. He worked with Aponte to launch the Expo, and today remains
one of its strongest supporters.
Rodríguez is currently coordinator of student activities at the Herbert
H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, and reaches out to colleagues
throughout the system to encourage them to spread the word about the
Expo to Hispanic students.
“You get kids to understand that the things they are learning in and out
of the classroom in high school have their place in the postsecondary
admissions process,” he said. “Colleges are looking for the whole student.
You want kids who are academically eligible for certain schools, but it’s
important to let kids know that no matter what your academic level, there
is a college out there for you, but you have to do your homework.”
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