Hispanic chamber kicks off college and career initiative


College students attend Get Focused: The Summit, the kickoff for the Building Bridges Through Education initiative. Courtesy West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

The local Hispanic chamber has launched a long-term program to improve education outcomes for Latino students and increase their inclusion in the state’s workforce.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (WMHCC) kicked off Building Bridges Through Education (BBTE) via a daylong event, “Get Focused: The Summit,” held Oct. 18 at Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus.

BBTE was created to bridge the college and career opportunities of Michigan Latino college students through employer connections and talent development activities. By linking employers, universities, students and parents, the chamber hopes to grow a “dynamic and inclusive workforce in Michigan.”

“In the next 20 years, we want this generation to have opportunities for development and access to any company in West Michigan,” said Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the Hispanic chamber.

WMHCC research found 6,000 Latino students currently are enrolled in West Michigan colleges and universities, but only 1,200 are expected to graduate with a degree, for a completion rate of 20%. According to Washington, D.C.-based research firm Excelencia in Education, the national degree attainment rate is 24% and 10% for Latino males.

The chamber said it frequently hears employers say Michigan’s Latino talent pool is too small, so their recruiters go out of state and abroad to hire Latino employees. Cisneros said this is a myth perpetuated by lack of communication and partnership between the Latino community and West Michigan employers.

Jessica Ledesma, BBTE program manager, said the chamber wanted to create a “Latino-initiated and Latino-led” talent initiative.

“The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is inserting itself to help co-create versus being tapped to give an opinion, to join a committee or to attend a focus group,” she said. “We are inserting ourselves … to help lead culturally responsive initiatives in our community.”

“Get Focused: The Summit” was designed as the debut event with Latino culture in mind to help prepare students for their next steps as young professionals. At the summit, students had the opportunity to network, receive résumé advice, obtain professional headshots — with an on-site beauty salon for pre-shoot touchups — and build their knowledge of the assets that their “Latinidad” brings to the workplace.

“Latinidad” refers to the attributes shared by Latin American people “without reducing those similarities to any single essential trait,” wrote sociologist Felix Padilla in his 1985 study, “Latino Ethnic Consciousness.” Ledesma said an example is Latino people share a culture of collectivism rather than individualism, which makes them “natural engagers and team players” who can create a “we/us scenario” versus “I or me.”

Get Focused featured two national speakers: Ovi Vásquez, a California-based motivational speaker and founder of OVinspires, and Patricia Mota, president and CEO of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement in Chicago. Vasquez and Mota also led workshops at the event.

About 125 Latino college talents registered for the summit and 90 attended. 

Cisneros and Ledesma said they knew the event would start out small because attending career fairs is “countercultural” for Latino students.

With enough support from donors and employer partners, Ledesma said the hope is to make Get Focused an annual event that will grow in attendance over time.

Besides the Get Focused summit, BBTE will offer a variety of other programs aligned with its mission.

During summer 2019, BBTE kicked off the Latinx Mixtape Series, a networking and education event where first-generation young professionals speak to first-generation college students about navigating career success.

The word “mixtape” is drawn from a metaphor employed by a pair of BBTE summer interns to describe Latino students: that they come from a variety of “genres,” or backgrounds and cultures; that they represent a variety of “artists,” or personalities, talents and passions; and that their first works in life will be as exploratory and diverse as a debut album.

“They are mixtapes … figuring out who they are, who they want to be and who they want others to see or hear, which is fair because that is the exact path of recording artists that we love today,” the interns wrote.

Added Ledesma: “We want our students to attend our (Mixtape) series to eventually blossom into an album.”

The BBTE initiative also has a goal of connecting employers with Latino interns via the career fair and networking opportunities. Cisneros said while many Latino students get internships in West Michigan, they don’t often end up being hired when their time is up, which BBTE hopes to change to avoid high unemployment levels and/or Latino talent leaving the state.

Corporate partners for BBTE include Spectrum Health, Amway, Steelcase, Herman Miller, SpartanNash and Bethany Christian Services.

BBTE is supported financially by the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation, DTE Energy Foundation and Wege Foundation, and its academic partners are Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University.

Ledesma and Cisneros said the chamber is seeking to add partners and supporters, as well as more colleges and universities.

“Our goal really is to expand this across Michigan,” Ledesma said.

By the numbers

6,000 Latino students currently are enrolled in West Michigan colleges and universities.

1,200 are expected to graduate with a degree.

The national degree attainment rate is 24% overall and 10% for Latino males.

Source: West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Excelencia in Education research

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