Chester County group paves way for future Latino leaders
The Latino Luncheon of Chester County awards scholarships to Latino students attending the area's universities.
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While working as an educator at West Chester University, Idna Corbett was one day approached by a student. She had known this young man since he began attending the school. He was now looking forward to his graduation, but he had a dilemma.
The student needed to take a class that was only offered every other summer, and if he didn’t take it during that upcoming session, he would not be able to graduate on time. He didn’t want to miss his opportunity to finish his degree, but he simply couldn’t afford to pay for the class.
Corbett knew she had to do something.
Corbett is a co-organizer of the Latino Luncheon of Chester County, a networking group that helps develop professional and personal connections within the county’s Latino community and beyond. When the student approached her, she was preparing to join the group for a luncheon later that day.
“Come to the Latino Luncheon,” Corbett said to the student. “I’m sure that there will be people there that will help. We’ll find a way.”
And she was right.
After hearing about the young man's problem, the group was able to raise the money for his class right then and there.
Corbett told Jose’s story to the more than 50 people gathered for the latest Latino Luncheon, which was held at Immaculata University on Friday, Nov. 3. After providing this student the means to finish his education, the group began raising funds to provide scholarships, each for $1500, to Latino students attending either West Chester University or Immaculata.
When the scholarship began, the Latino Luncheon raised enough money for two recipients per year. Today, the group is up to four.
For Corbett, this type of philanthropy is so important because she has seen firsthand how education has helped “break the cycle of poverty” for many Latino families in the U.S. She wants all Latinos to know that higher education is an option for them, even if no one in their family has ever attended college.
Both universities suggest candidates for the scholarships to the Latino Luncheon organizers based on each student’s cumulative GPA and financial need. The organizers then interview these candidates to select the recipients, which can be a difficult decision.
“We interviewed about 15 students and these kids were all exceptional, very distinguished,” co-organizer Leonard J. Rivera said of this year’s candidates. “They almost moved me to the point of tears.”
While maintaining jobs and making time to help their families, these students remain determined to excel academically so they can build careers and give back to their communities.
Take, for example, the aspirations of one of this year's scholarship recipients, Cristian Ochoa. An Immaculata senior, criminology major and first generation college student, Ochoa was honored at the latest Latino Luncheon. A Norristown native, Ochoa knows first hand the challenges that a largely Spanish-speaking community can face when interacting with law enforcement.
“People are afraid to call the police,” Ochoa said.
After college, Ochoa hopes to join the police force to help translate the needs of members of the Hispanic community.
“I just want to help people feel welcome,” Ochoa said, adding that he’s grateful to the Latino Luncheon for helping him to move towards that goal.
Corbett has enjoyed a decades-long career in academia, and she currently serves as the Vice President of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Rivera runs a law practice based in Kennett Square. Nelly Jimenez-Arevalo is Executive Director and CEO of ACLAMO Family Centers while Luis Colmenares is a Solution Architect for SAP.
Like these co-organizers, many participants in the Latino Luncheon are successful professionals. Along with offering educational opportunities such as the scholarship fund, members of the Latino Luncheon also act as mentors and connections for young Latinos aiming to launch their careers.
“We wanted to make sure that other Latinos have the same opportunities that we all did,” said Jimenez-Arevalo. “We want them to know that they’re not alone, that we are here to support them.”
As Latino inclusion remains lacking in workforces across many U.S. industries, especially at the leadership level, it's support that's needed. Compounding the issue is the disparaging rhetoric against Hispanic communities that has become so prominent in American political discourse.
Colmenares, an immigrant from Venezuela, moved to the U.S. after accepting a job offer. He said he has not personally faced many obstacles in his career because of his background, but he cannot say the same for others.
“I’ve heard, and I’ve seen, challenges that other folks might face because of their ethnicity, their race,” Colmenares said.
He knows Latino U.S. citizens who have been accused of stealing jobs from Americans. He has friends who have been asked to "ease their accents" in the workplace.
Colmenares believes misconceptions and biases against the Latino community grow from a lack of understanding, and groups like the Latino Luncheon help to educate others by highlighting the many positive contributions that Latinos make to U.S. society.
The Latino Luncheon of Chester County meets the first Friday of every month, and holds a fundraiser dinner once a year. For more information, including how to get involved, visit the group's Meetup page here.