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Donna Marceau tutors a Latina student, Griseliz Fernandez, in a classroom at Nashua Community College.

Courtesy photo
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nashua Community College program prepares Latino students for graduating one day

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in a three-part series about Spanish speakers in Greater Nashua. Reporter Danielle Curtis is fluent in Spanish.

When Bruno Soares moved to the United States from Brazil with his father four years ago, he was 17 and didn’t speak any English.

He enrolled in Nashua High School North’s English Language Learners program to improve his English but still struggled with the new language.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t understand anything, not even the teachers,” Soares said. “I was completely lost.”

Still, as his English improved slowly, Soares started thinking about college. After visiting several colleges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and deciding they weren’t right for him, Soares visited the Nashua Community College campus.

Today, Soares is a graduate of NCC’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program and is enrolled in the college’s paralegal studies program.

Soares credits the college’s Project LEAP – Latino Educational Achievement Program – for his success.

Project LEAP helps Latino students enroll in NCC and provides them with the resources necessary to excel at the postsecondary level.

Statistically, Latino students have much lower graduation rates from both high school and college than students of other ethnic groups nationwide, said Esteban Lopez, director of research and development at the New Hampshire College and University Council, a nonprofit organization of 17 public and private higher-education institutions in the state.

Only 12 percent of Latinos 25 or older nationwide hold a college degree compared with 18 percent for blacks and 33 percent for non-Hispanic whites, Lopez said.

At NCC, providing the resources needed to help Latino students succeed is a particularly important issue: In the Community College System of New Hampshire, NCC has the highest number of Latino students enrolled, with 69 Latino undergraduates enrolled as of 2008, according to New Hampshire College and University Council data.

The LEAP program, led by NCC world languages professors Donna Marceau and Elizabeth Berry, was created in October 2009 to help the many Latino students who attend the college to increase their graduation rates.

Through their work with Project LEAP, Marceau and Berry said they’ve learned various factors contribute to the lower graduation rates of Latino students locally and nationwide. The professors are working to provide the resources necessary to combat these factors and increase the graduation rates of NCC’s Latino students.

One of these factors is the importance of family in Latino culture, Berry said.

“In the Latino culture, the family comes first before everything else, so if there is a family situation that pulls you away from school, that’s the priority,” Berry said. “The family need comes before the personal interests of the individuals.”

Because of this family pull, Berry said, Latino students are more likely to miss classes and therefore less likely to graduate.

Marceau said that while Latino families are usually supportive of their child attending college, they’re often unable to support the student’s education financially, another factor that contributes to the low graduation rates of Latino students.

Berry added that because many Latino students are first-generation college attendees, they may not understand the financial realities of college, including how much it costs, the time it takes away from work and earning money, and how to apply for financial aid.

The biggest challenge Soares has faced while attending NCC is struggling to pay for school.

More than once, Soares was barely able to pay for the cost of his classes and was left without money to buy books. He said Marceau and Berry helped him succeed despite this situation, by buying the books for him.

Another factor contributing to the lower graduation rates of Latino students is that many attend community colleges or other postsecondary institutions without intending to graduate, Berry said.

“Many come to enhance their basic skills that will help them get a better job, so their goal never was to graduate,” Berry said. “They’re not graduating, but no one really asks if their goal was to graduate with a degree or simply to get a better job as soon as they can. … Maybe their goal was purely economical.”

Marceau and Berry said one of the most common factors contributing to the lower completion rates of Latino college students – particularly those such as Soares who moved to the U.S. as teenagers – is a lack of understanding of the English language.

NCC has an extensive ESOL program with both noncredit and credit classes for students of all ability levels. Through Project LEAP, Marceau and Berry have organized various clubs and activities to encourage Spanish-speaking students and other non-English speakers to practice English.

One such activity is the International Cafe, which is open to any student or community member regardless of his or her language. The monthly International Cafe gives attendees the opportunity to practice English while sharing their culture with others.

“It’s a fun, casual, positive environment and just another way for Latinos and other non-native speakers to interact with similar people,” Berry said. “It creates a camaraderie” among the students.

Soares said the International Cafe helped him improve his English.

“It’s nice because you get to know more about other cultures and learn a lot,” Soares said. “And it forces you to speak English, because that’s the only way that you can communicate with (students from other countries) – you learn English, but are also having fun.”

Marceau and Berry also work individually with students to help them with everything from personal issues to filling out a job application and getting a recommendation.

Berry said this one-on-one support is often the most important when helping NCC’s Latino students succeed at the college.

“I think they feel valued and feel a sense of belonging,” Berry said. “They feel like they’re not isolated and that there’s a place specifically tailored to their needs, their issues and their goals.”

While Marceau and Berry said it’s still to early to know if the resources provided by Project LEAP have been successful at increasing Latino students’ graduation rates, for Soares, the program has been a success.

Soares said that although he didn’t take his education seriously while living in Brazil, attending NCC has inspired him to take his education further.

After graduating from the college next year, Soares plans to attend a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science with the goal of becoming a lawyer.

Without Project LEAP, Soares said, he would have struggled to reach the level of success he has attained at NCC.

“I’m in there all the time,” Soares said of Marceau and Berry’s office. “You don’t have to make an appointment. You can just pop by and ask for help whenever you need it.

“I wouldn’t get all the support that I get here at another college.”