The transition from high school to college can be difficult for any student, but it is made more difficult for those who look around their new campus and do not see students with whom they identify.
After students noticed that the College of William and Mary lacked a broad-ranging organization for Latino students, they worked to revitalize the Latin American Student Union, an organization that had once existed at the College but was last active several years ago.
LASU is now a space for Latino students, as well as students interested in Latino culture, to come together as a community.
According to the College’s Office of Undergraduate Admission, 8 percent of the class of 2019 identifies as Hispanic or Latino.
For students who come from high schools with significantly higher proportions of Latino students, this small percentage can make finding a home on campus jarring.
LASU President Jacqueline Amaya Mendez ’17 said that her transition to the College was made more difficult by the lack of a large Latino community on campus.
“It’s very much a culture shock when Latino freshmen come to school here, especially when you come from a diverse high school,” Mendez said. “I was the only Latina on my freshman hall.”
Mendez said that she first found a home in Hermanidad de Sigma Iota Alpha, Inc., the Latin sorority at the College.
“I joined SIA, which I love, but it’s a niche within the Latino community,” Mendez said. “LASU is a place where we can all come together. It serves a wider community.”
Mendez sees something new in LASU. To Mendez, what makes LASU stand out is its inclusivity in terms of both gender and organizational focus.
She noted that the Spanish House is language-focused and salsa club focuses on culture, but she said that LASU will work to bring together culture, activism and social activities.
Mendez said that their first meeting was a great success, drawing around 40 people. For her and the rest of the organization’s exec board, this turnout demonstrated that LASU is filling a need on campus.
Assistant Dean of Students and LASU sponsor Wilmarie Rodriguez Ed.D ’20 also said that LASU would provide students with a way to connect with and learn about different aspects of Latino culture.
According to her, re-establishing LASU is also important because of the changing demographics of the College’s students.
Establishing LASU is very important because the organization supports the rapidly growing number of Hispanic students applying, attending, and completing degrees at W&M,” Rodriguez said in an email.
“Establishing LASU is very important because the organization supports the rapidly growing number of Hispanic students applying, attending, and completing degrees at W&M,” Rodriguez said in an email. “LASU promotes opportunities for our student body to broaden their understanding and appreciation of diverse Latino/Hispanic cultures. In addition, students can connect with other Hispanic/Latino students and create relationships that develop and strengthens their cultural roots away from home.”
According to LASU Vice President Karina Lizano-Blanco ’19, the idea to re-establish LASU emerged organically from students coming together to express their desire for an organization like LASU.
“It came from the need that we just didn’t have a space on campus and it’s hard to connect with other Latinos so we’re just trying to get it started and up and running,” Lizano-Blanco said.
LASU Marketing Chair Olivia Leon Vitervo ’19 was one of those students looking for connection with her heritage when she arrived on campus as a freshman.
To her, LASU is more than simply a club. Vitervo said that LASU gave her an opportunity to embrace her identity and gain friendship.
“It’s all about embracing what people bring to the table and learning something out of it or getting a friendship out of it,” Leon Vitervo said.
She said that the process of starting LASU back up took a lot of planning and work over the summer.
But, because the students involved were so dedicated and because the administration was supportive, the work was worth it. Leon Vitervo said that the future of the organization depends on the goals and plans of its members.
We don’t know where we’re heading but that’s part of the community building,” Leon Vitervo said.
“We don’t know where we’re heading but that’s part of the community building,” Leon Vitervo said. “Our members are going to decide where to shift it toward. It’s a new beginning.”
Although LASU was established to support and create a community for Latino students, it is not an exclusive organization.
Mendez said that no one should be deterred from joining because they don’t feel “Latino enough.”
She said that LASU’s goal is to create a community where members can learn about and support each other, regardless of heritage.