Con Promesa: Ferris State University connects with Latino community

One out of every four students entering kindergarten in the United States next year will be Latino, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study. And more than 2 million Hispanics ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in the U.S. last year—many of them first generation college students. So it’s no wonder that Ferris State University is reaching out to Latinos here in West Michigan.

With a promising spate of new programs, Ferris has developed a plan to create a university that welcomes, recruits, retains, and graduates a diverse population; hire and retain a diverse workforce; and create environments for student learning that are inclusive of and sensitive to a diverse student population. In the past year, they have made real strides in reaching these goals, and that's partly because of the passionate people who are leading the new initiatives.

Fritz Erickson, provost at Ferris State University, says, “When you organize people around their passions, great things happen.” Erickson is talking about Tony Baker, Jessica Cruz and Carlos Sanchez, the folks responsible for Ferris’ outreach to Grand Rapids-area Latinos.

Ferris has established the Center for Latino Studies, which is based on the Big Rapids campus. It is designed to reach out to Hispanics through educational, social and leadership-development activities like the Latino Business and Economic Development Center housed at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids.

Dr. Tony Baker, a Grand Rapids school board member and Ferris professor of sociology, was tapped to be the interim director of the new Center for Latino Studies. When Tony went looking for an associate director, he asked around in the neighborhood near the Hispanic Center in Grand Rapids. He kept hearing the same name: “Oh man, you gotta talk to Jessica Cruz.”

Cruz grew up in the southwest Grand Rapids neighborhood of Roosevelt Park. She was branded by the people of her neighborhood as an “Independent Agent” because she was taking action on her own to benefit her community—and that was before she got a Ph.D from Columbia University. Timing is everything and since Cruz had recently returned to the area, what better place to apply her passion for bettering the Latino community than in her home neighborhood?

Connecting the various colleges of Ferris State University to the Latino community is a strong focus for the program. Baker envisions opportunities for education majors to student teach and for pharmacy majors to do their practicum in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood.

With the help of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Grand Rapids Public Schools, The Center for Latino Studies has launched the Woodbridge Promesa Summer Success Bridge Program, a free eight-week program for rising high school seniors. The program is designed to improve math, reading and ACT scores. “We want to raise student achievement to help students avoid the time and expense associated with taking remedial courses in college. The drop-out rate is higher among students requiring remedial classes,” says Cruz.

Students accepted to Ferris have an opportunity to transition to the Promesa Scholar program, which builds a cohort of students who get to know one and other before they ever get to campus. Promesa Scholars are awarded funding to pay for on-campus housing in their first year. “This is not a handout. We work with the students so that they understand the data that says, ‘Students who live in the residence halls vs. commuting to campus do better academically and also are more likely to remain enrolled.’ Providing the housing stipend addresses only one of the potential barriers facing incoming Latino students,” says Cruz.

Cruz and Baker are also launching Hablemos: Speaking Spanish Together at Ferris’ Big Rapids campus. “One of our primary charges is to support Latino students at Ferris and to introduce our non-Latino students to Latin American culture,” said Baker.

Erickson comments, “The Latino Business & Economic Development Center was a natural extension of the Center for Latino Studies and Ferris’ Entrepreneurship Institute… We saw an opportunity to support the business activities of our West Michigan business owners and growing West Michigan Latino population through entrepreneurial education and additional networking opportunities.”

For the past 14 years, Carlos Sanchez has worked to promote diversity, build connections and create opportunities for Latino businesses in Grand Rapids and throughout West Michigan. Last year, Sanchez was named director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center. He made the move from his position as executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber because he saw an opportunity to fill a need for Latino business owners and entrepreneurs. “These are first generation college grads who need a little help navigating the business and corporate world. We can empower this academically successful community of people to launch and achieve their maximum potential.”

The Latino Business and Economic Development Center is launching a leadership program to boost professional development among young Latinos in the Grand Rapids area. In addition to providing individuals the opportunity to advance their careers and better engage in the community at large, the program will support emerging Latino community leaders. “Graduates of the program will be better equipped to represent their community, make an impact and further their professional careers,” Sanchez says. “Better professionals benefit the communities they live in.”

Erickson summed it up, saying, “These programs are, in large part, initiatives driven by our dedicated faculty, staff, and community members who saw that we could benefit from offering all of our students and campus members more opportunities to use cultural understanding as a way to better connect with each other. We’ve created a space where so many of our students have come together to connect with each other, and we’re excited to be able to extend cultural learning opportunities to all of our faculty and staff members on campus as well. The truth is, we all come from different backgrounds, different family customs, and different experiences. These programs provide an opportunity for all of our students and campus to grow in cultural understanding, relating the similarities and differences of our life experiences as a way to better understand our global society.”

Pam Landes is the Chief Thinker at Think Again, a company that supplies creativity in many forms. Check out

Pictured above from left to right are Carlos Sanchez, students enrolled in the Latino Studies program, Jessica Cruz and Dr. Tony Baker. Photography by Adam Bird

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