Looking back on FSU program that is steadily creating & retaining Latino leaders in West Michigan

In 2012, the campus of Ferris State University (FSU) had a population of close to 13,000 students, only a few hundred of whom were Latino.

This disparity led to a sense of isolation for the Latino students on campus. It was difficult for them to find other Latinos who they could identify with. FSU held an on-campus focus group with Latino students and found that these feelings of isolation led to mental health issues. Students weren't connecting with others who spoke their language. They would often return home after graduation, taking their potential talent with them.

Administrators began sharing their concerns with Director of Community Engagement, Tony D. Baker, who is now a professor of sociology at FSU and a Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education member. The yearlong conversation that followed led to the dedication of a new space for Latino students.

The Center for Latin@ Studies

"We decided to start an on-campus space called the Center for Latin@ Studies that would be a welcoming space for students and have a linkage to the community," Baker says.

Tony BakerBaker asked Carlos Sanchez, currently director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at FSU, then director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (WMHCC), to play an advisory role to this group.

"Carlos told me about his vision for a leadership program, which would also connect community economic development to what was happening at the University," Baker says.

Sanchez had completed the Leadership Grand Rapids program and was looking to create a Latino-centric version that would extend the same opportunities to Hispanic populations in West Michigan.

"The Chamber was one of the only two Latino organizations in town," Sanchez says. "I was being approached by usually younger Latinos and Latina professionals who were asking for resources to improve their professional development — books and resources for training. We got to a point where there was a critical mass and enough need to do something here, rather than just mentor one another."

Baker told Sanchez he should bring his idea to FSU and followed up with a call to then Provost Fritz Erickson. Sanchez also talked to Erickson and a few days later the wheels were in motion.

Over the next year, Sanchez, Baker and Jessica Cruz, a former Grandville Avenue corridor resident who is now directing the University of Michigan’s Just Futures Initiative, traveled to Chicago to meet with the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. Baker says those Chicago trips were important to the outcome of the program.

"It gave us a vision for the way other places did this kind of work and how they created the outcomes we wanted," he says.

The LEADeres program

Sanchez spent another year pulling together the basic infrastructure for the program, called the Latino Talent Initiative, which would later become the LEADeres program at the Center for Latin@ Studies. Sanchez called in many of the people he engaged with through his work as executive director of WMHCC. This team of advisers also became instructors on how to implement the program and many are still actively engaged to this day.

"We created a model that is still unique in that it's not just an affinity group on campus — it's a community of students," Baker says. "We were going to create specific partnerships with the communities that our students were coming from."

This includes primarily the WMHCC and Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce in Holland, as well as other organizations that connect Latino professionals with career resources.

"In all that time, there has not been another program like this in Grand Rapids," Sanchez says. "There isn't one today, even 10 years later. It is the only Latino-centric leadership program in West Michigan."

To date, over 150 Latino professionals have successfully completed the LEADeres program. These students are connected to resources that help them plan career paths they wouldn't have otherwise considered because they wouldn't be available back home. Students are consistently being introduced to mentors, role models and other people who can help them get jobs after they graduate. Many of the students in the program credit it for achieving their professional goals.

"Some have moved up the corporate ladder and some have run for office," Sanchez says. "Some have been successful and some have not, but at least they've stepped up to the plate. Many of the graduates of our program are in leadership positions in the city or they're about to jump onto bigger things."

One of the FSU students who took part in that focus group 10 years ago, Kaylee Moreno-Burke, LLMSW, went on to receive her Master's degree from the University of Michigan and is now the executive director of the Center for Latin@ Studies. The Hispanic student enrollment at FSU meanwhile increased every year, even when the general enrollment was declining.

The last decade has seen a closer relationship forged between FSU and the Hispanic community in Grand Rapids, largely owing to Sanchez’ work.

"I often joke that if you run into a young Latino professional in Grand Rapids, they went through Carlos' program or they're currently in it," Baker says.

The LEADeres program is helping FSU bring in students, helping those students learn how to solve important problems and helping the Latino community benefit by being a part of that solution.

"We want our graduates to learn from the same leaders that their non-Latino counterparts are learning from, because they are their competition on the corporate ladder," Sanchez says. "They need to know what their competition is learning through a Latino lens, looking at the innate resources and skills Latinos have that can give them an advantage over the competition."

"We're not just recruiting students to come and then graduate," Baker says. "We're creating long-term lasting relationships with the community."

This solutions journalism story is part of a three-part LEADeres series on its past, present, and future impact on the West Michigan region. Underwriting for this editorially independent series was made possible through Ferris State University.

Photos courtesy Autumn Johnson, Bird + Bird Studio and Tony Baker.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 20 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm.
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