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Mentoring program pairs Latina students and strong role models

As a young adult watching Univision in the Bronx, Ana Banegas — now a Fordham University graduate student — was galvanized by the “Orgullo Hispano” campaign. Banegas, who immigrated from Honduras when she was eight years old, told her mother that one day she would be worthy of Orgullo Hispano, or Hispanic Pride.

Now, as a mentor through Fordham’s Mentoring Latinas program, Banegas can pass that vision to city students who are not so different from herself at their age. Mentoring Latinas, founded in 2003, pays college students to build relationships with Latina girls in the Bronx, with the goal of empowering the young women and encouraging them to aim higher in school.

In the last year, the city launched an initiative to help young Latino men find employment and perform better in school. Girls, who typically do better in school and are less likely to run into trouble with the law, aren’t part of the initiative.

But Latina girls need a helping hand, too. Mentoring Latinas cites statistics about Latinas’ high birth rate — more than half of Latinas have at least one child before age 20 — and high rate of attempted suicide to explain why young women need positive role models and receptive ears. The mentors and mentees typically pair off on Wednesday afternoons, spending time bonding while walking through campus talking about their lives and futures.

This week, they came together in a bright room on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus for a panel discussion featuring Banegas; Mairelys Alberto, the outreach programs coordinator at El Museo del Barrio; and Pilar Larancuent, a youth development coordinator at Graham Windham. The trio spoke to girls who attend Belmont Preparatory High School and M.S. 45 Thomas C. Giordano, their Fordham mentors, and Mentoring Latina sponsors — including representatives of AT&T, which partly funds the initiative through Aspire Grants.

This week, the group came together to hear about Bangeas’s, Alberto’s, and Larancuent’s journeys towards success. The three speakers delivered resounding messages about the value of education, determination, and focus.

The women spoke about the doors that opened through their own experiences being mentored. Through the Theatre Development Fund, Alberto was matched up with writers Frank Rich and Alexandra Witchel during her senior year of high school, and more than a decade since first meeting, Larancuent is still in touch with her mentor. They also spoke about the importance for creating and holding onto a vision for the future.

The advice was mostly inspirational, but some practical pointers were doled out too: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Larancuent told the group.

Natisha Cancel and Rosanna Morel, seventh-graders at M.S. 45, told me that their mentor, Fordham junior Sarah Ramirez, has taught them responsibility and respect — and the ropes of college life, which they expect will come in handy in five years when they head to college themselves.

Chowing down on churros after the talk, the girls explained the value of hearing about the speakers’ own journeys of maturity.

“It showed me I can be someone like that,” Cancel said.