Richard Aguirre, director of corporate and foundation relations, has helped reinforce GC’s commitment to first-generation Latino students. Last year, he formulated and proposed a college prep program for Goshen High School. The project’s beginnings were part of a larger vision for Indiana.
“I was part of a state commission organized by IUPUI (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis). The goal of this effort was to develop an agenda to propel Indiana forward for the next couple of decades,” Aguirre said.
One statistic this interdisciplinary committee was combatting was population decline in the Midwest. Bordering states have decreased in numbers in recent years and, if not for an influx of immigrants, Indiana would be in the same boat. Aguirre brought his significant experience within higher education and commitment to diversity to this issue.
“The idea that struck me is that a lot of high school students aspire to go to college and a lot of them will be first-generation students,” Aguirre said.
Unfortunately, it’s often these students who slip through the cracks.
“Counselors don’t really have a lot of time to sit down with kids, following up with them: ‘Have you made a visit? Filled out the FAFSA?’” Aguirre said. “They just can’t do that and without parents who can help them do that, they’re stuck.”
As a solution, Aguirre presented a plan for a college prep counselor, dedicated solely to preparing first-generation students for college.
“So my idea was originally that this could be like AmeriCorp, where the state could give really low interest loans to students who would spend a year after graduating from college mentoring in their home schools,” said Aguirre.
At the state level, the legislative process surrounding his proposal could take several years.
Last spring, Aguirre and Gilberto Perez, senior director of intercultural development and educational partnerships, visited the Community Foundation of Elkhart County in search of internship opportunities for students of color. Jodi Spataro, chief advancement officer at the Community Foundation, mentioned their Innovation Fund, which accepts proposals for partnership opportunities that would better the Elkhart community. Aguirre saw his window of opportunity and mentioned the project to Spataro, who was extremely receptive.
The Foundation quickly approved a one-year pilot project for $20,000, where things began to snowball with proposals to the school board occurring shortly thereafter. Preceding the proposal to the school board, significant logistical planning was necessary between GC, Diane Woodworth–the district’s superintendent–and others.
In addition to approving the position, the board allowed the prospective college prep coach benefits. The hiring process, in which Aguirre was extremely involved, began in August.
This is where Marlette Gomez, a 2013 GC social work graduate, comes into the picture.
“I got involved by talking to Richard Aguirre throughout his process of getting the position approved and funded. He connected with me and was able to explain his vision for the project. I was really intrigued,” Gomez said.
Gomez was a first-generation Latina student and feels personally connected to the issues Aguirre was striving to address.
“My parents stopped being able to help with homework and all that years before college,” she said. “So when I thought about helping other students in my same position get to college, I thought that would be life changing.”
Aguirre and GC have been alongside Gomez throughout the process.
“Part of it was that GC made the commitment that we would provide mentorship for whoever was hired,” Aguirre said.
As College Prep Coach at GHS, Gomez has seen great success.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “So far, I’ve met with over 120 students individually, gone on several college visits, conducted workshops with families, held a student panel and given presentations in classrooms and for various school clubs.”
The program has also affected application numbers at Goshen College.
“We had more Latinos apply by early January  than had applied through June of 2016. I am pretty confident we are going to have a crazy high number of Latino students in the fall,” Aguirre said.
While the Community Foundation has only promised to finance the pilot project for one year, Aguirre recently presented a three-year expansion plan to the Foundation’s board.
“We have made a proposal to the foundation that this program be continued to be funded for three years and be expanded to Concord and Elkhart,” said Aguirre. “We’ll find out next month whether that proposal was granted.”
Gomez sees the intrinsic value of the project, both as a social worker and as a former first-generation Latina student.
“Day in and day out, I am able to take myself back, relate and empathize with many of the students I help…Overall, it never hurts to have another mentor or adult watching over you and keeping you accountable to achieve your dreams,” said Aguirre.