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Latino community with 10.31.2016

When Lauren Andreu began the MSW program, she looked around the classroom and was surprised not to see “a ton of people who looked like me.” Andreu, a native South Carolinian and Cuban-American, knew that the Latino population in South Carolina was climbing, but this demographic shift wasn’t represented in her program.

Andreu also experienced some knowledge gaps in her classes and was often called upon to represent the Latino perspective. “Sometimes that was alienating,” she admits, and problematic—“I’m just one person,” she says. She couldn’t possibly represent the variety and complexity of Latino experience.

Andreu was inspired to take action by her first-year internship at PASOs, an organization dedicated to building healthy families in the Latino community. At a stakeholders’ meeting with service providers, Andreu recalls hearing a nurse tell a story about a laboring pregnant woman who had to wait two hours for a translator to arrive at the hospital. Hearing that story “just put an exclamation point on my initial thought” that there are gaps in resources and services for Latinos in South Carolina, says Andreu. This “ah-ha” moment led Andreu to seek out other students, the dean, and Assistant Professor Ben Roth.

The result of their efforts is the new Latino Leadership Development Initiative, which aims to recruit and retain talented Latino students. Andreu stresses that the initiative wouldn’t have taken off without the “efforts and energies” of other students, including recent MSW graduate Alfonso Franco and current BSW student Melissa Aguirre. So far, the initiative has produced a strategic plan that outlines steps for increasing Latino student enrollment within the next five years. According to Roth, the initiative seeks “to equip students and faculty to better engage, serve, and collaborate with the Latino community.” This goal can be achieved by increasing Latino representation within the College and providing additional training opportunities.

The initiative began as a simple dialogue: “a group of undergraduate and graduate students had a couple meetings and convened a group of faculty to talk with them,” says Roth, “opening up the opportunity for those students to share their perspective.” Over a dozen faculty attended this fruitful initial conversation. The students set the agenda and started by each sharing the story of their path to higher education. “They wanted a more nuanced and sophisticated appreciation of who Latinos are,” explains Roth. Some of these students were international, some were local, and all had different experiences. These personal stories were “a really captivating way to engage these heads of programs at the College,” says Roth, noting that “everyone was enthusiastically supportive.”

Key to the initiative’s success is keeping the dialogue going. This semester, the initiative is sponsoring a lunch event for Latino students and allies. The goal of the meeting, according to Roth, is “to formalize a core group of students for carrying the initiative forward and raising further awareness” of the issues faced by members of the Latino community.

Short-term goals include reducing some of the financial barriers that Latino students may encounter. The strategic plan recommends the creation of new scholarships and graduate assistantships, including a dedicated graduate assistant for the initiative. Other goals include improving Latino visibility and making the CoSW more welcoming to Latino students. These multi-faceted goals recognize that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to improving Latino recruitment and retention in the CoSW; after all, “Latino” encompasses a variety of different experiences and perspectives.

Andreu has already been recognized for her hard work: she’s a recent recipient of the prestigious Gosnell Scholarship, awarded by the National Association of Social Workers. The award is named after Consuelo Gosnell, a prominent social worker and civil rights activist, and was also awarded to Roth when he was an MSW student. For Andreu, the scholarship “means that there are people in the social work realm who really value the importance of the work that is being done with Latino communities,” and she says she is encouraged by it.

Andreu hopes that the initiative extends well past her graduation and “gains traction with faculty and staff,” citing the importance of added cultural competence in the classroom so students are ready to engage with the Latino community when they enter the field. Thanks to the efforts of Andreu and Roth, the Latino Leadership Development Initiative is providing a path toward improved representation and cultural competence that will prepare CoSW graduates for the future.

Anyone interested in supporting the Latino Leadership Development Initiative is welcome to contact CoSW development officer Sarah Wells at (803) 777-3902 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Learn more about ways to support the CoSW here.

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