The Hispanic Student Association celebrated its introduction to campus and kicked off Hispanic Heritage Week on Friday with “Speak Up Latina,” a panel focusing on challenges for Latinos in higher education.
The panel featured four Latinas from the Nashville area, including the Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt Maria Ornelas as well as three workers from Conexión Américas– a non-profit organization that helps integrate Latinos into the Nashville community, including Youth Development Manager Denise Rocha, Marketing and Community Engagement Coordinator, Family Engagement Manager Maria Zapata.
This convocation was the organization’s first event as the Hispanic Student Association. The organization’s predecessor, the Hispanic Student Alliance, went dormant in 2013 due to a lack of membership.
It was reinstated as the Hispanic Student Association the fall semester of 2015, with an initiative to focus on social and cultural awareness, community and professional development for the Latino community at Belmont.
With the Hispanic population at Belmont increasing from 251 students in the 2014-2015 academic year to 294 students in the 2015-2016 academic year, the Hispanic/Latino population is now the highest underrepresented ethnicity at Belmont, second to the African-American population at 281 students, according to the Belmont University Official Enrollment Report Fall 2015.
With this increase in the Hispanic demographic on campus, HSA President Alyssa Aloyo said she looks forward to the chance to fully equip the organization in a way that it will function long after her senior year.
“The fact that we’ve grown that much is awesome, but now it’s just a matter of finding them,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of you being here anymore, now you have the job of laying down the footwork for students who come after you. It’s kind of realizing that although you didn’t sign up for that obligation, it’s there.”
Aloyo saw a need for the organization this fall after instructor of entrepreneurship and management Dr. José Gonzales informed Aloyo said that Belmont University was the only university in the Middle Tennessee area without a Futuro chapter, a program that helps Latino students transition from college to career.
As soon as Aloyo brought the idea to Amy Coles, Coles supported the group and pushed Aloyo to start immediately with events like Hispanic Heritage Week, Aloyo said.
Despite the support from Gonzales and Coles, Aloyo said that Hispanics still face several challenges at PWIs– or Predominantly White Institutions– like Belmont.
“It’s very important to have these conversations and to have this respectful dialogue. With everything that’s going on in the country right now, there’s too much ignorance. There’s too many people that are OK with being ignorant,” Aloyo said.
Moving to Nashville from her diverse hometown of Lawrenceville, New Jersey presented a new set of challenges to how Aloyo identified with other minorities. Being Puerto Rican, her family line includes Africans, Spaniards and native Puerto Ricans.
“I feel as I relate to the white and the black as well as other minority communities, but when I came down here everything was very white and black for me,” Aloyo said. “I had to wake up and say ‘What side of the bed did I wake up on that morning?’ I was having to choose. I never felt like I could be myself.”
Aloyo said she appreciates her education at Belmont, but the lack of diversity caused her to realize the importance of her Latino community back at home.
“You never realize how much being a Latina means until you’re put in a situation where you’re the only one. You’re put in this position of ‘How do I preserve my culture’ and ‘How do I educate others about my culture?’”
To solve the problem of a lack of diversity on campus, Aloyo is pushing for a more mobilizing force of reaching prospective students and connecting with the Nashville Hispanic community.
“I think we need to be more in their face about it. Not in the sense that it’s like ‘I’m only going to pick the few minorities to be on the cover of everything or be on every single brochure,’” she said. “It has to be a lot more than that. We have to go out. So, that people know we’re here to relate to and to make this common ground so that you know you can make a home wherever you are.”
For more discussions on ethnicities and how to increase the diversity at Belmont, Aloyo said she hopes students will come to the convo at 10 a.m in Massey Boardroom on Monday. Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo Jr., the chief diversity officer at Princeton University Theological Seminary, will be speaking on the importance of diversity, especially in Christian institutions.
“Obviously with my answer to the ‘has Belmont achieved diversity?’ question, this is something that Belmont needs,” Aloyo said. “It’s going to be great because one he’s my dad, and two, he has a lot of important things to say. It’s part of Hispanic Heritage Week but it includes people of all shapes, sizes and colors.”