Julia Huesa is a Hispanic student at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. She’s part of a small percentage of Hispanic students who will attend college, and she’ll do so at Harvard University – an Ivy League school.
With so few Hispanic students going to college and earning degrees, Huesa and fellow students are determined to give back.
Huesa, 17, of Laurinburg, is a member of Jóvenes Para Ayudar, an all-student group at the Durham school that aims to give Hispanic students an equal opportunity to attend and succeed in college.
On Sunday, dozens of JPA students and their supporters held a Fiesta for Education, a carnival-style event at Green Hope Elementary park in Cary, to raise money for scholarships that will go to Hispanic students.
JPA, which means “Youth Who Help,” raised $4,300 this year for the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals, which has provided more than $250,000 in scholarships to Hispanic students since its founding in 1999.
That’s more than double the amount raised last year, when the group’s first fiesta brought in $1,700.
About a third of those scholarships go toward students seeking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees.
At the park Sunday, wind flapped the fiesta banners and swept napkins off the tables. The smell of tamales, quesadillas and other foods followed.
Students climbed trees, took selfies and played soccer. Children drew on the sidewalk with chalk – huge flowers, the sun, hopscotch.
JPA provides academic support to Hispanic students, but members also become role models through tutoring and other programs, Huesa said.
“It gives them a little hope that they can do it, too, despite whatever obstacles they may be facing,” she said. “Once they feel that they belong, it’s a lot easier for them to focus and develop their interests.”
Hispanic students face unique challenges, Huesa said, including being discouraged from rigorous academic programs.
“These stereotypes are clearly not the only challenge many Hispanic students might face on the road to higher education, but they are certainly an important factor that may leave them in need of affirmation of their own potential,” she said.
Fewer than 15 percent of Hispanics have bachelor’s or higher degrees, according to Pew Research, even though more are attending than ever before.
From 1996 to 2012, college enrollment among young Hispanics more than tripled, outpacing increases in other races, according to the Pew report. But fewer are graduating with four-year degrees, making up just 9 percent of young adults (25-29) with bachelor’s degrees.
Huesa, the daughter of Hispanic immigrants, said she’s been privileged, compared to other immigrant students who face language barriers, serve as translators for their parents, have difficulty navigating the higher education system and may lack time to succeed academically because they also work to support their families.
Undocumented Hispanics also face challenges in completing higher education, Huesa said, by risking deportation and having to pay in-state tuition because they lack citizenship, making higher education “all the more financially inaccessible.”
Neyra Toledo, director of the Society of Hispanic Professionals, said she’s touched by the students’ efforts, especially since few of them are Hispanic themselves.
“It’s students helping students, and that’s important,” she said. “The need is so great, and they’re being so selfless.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett