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From left to right: Esther Guerrero, Celine Guerrero and Josè Manuel Guerrero. (By Julie Walker)

Celine Guerrero began college at Wayne State University in 2019 with the dream of a career in interior design.

When her second year arrived, so did the coronavirus pandemic. The abrupt shift to virtual classes made the 20-year-old anxious and she struggled to keep up.

“I decided to take a break from school,” Guerrero said. “And after that, I was feeling really uncertain with my future. I didn’t know what to do.”

Enter the Michigan Hispanic Collaborative, or MiHC, a southwest Detroit nonprofit that helps Latino students get to, and succeed in college and the professional world.

MiHC launched in 2018 with a mission to work with students like Guerrero for up to a decade. Typically, that work starts in the junior year of high school and continues through the first years of their career, though some students join later than 11th grade.

The nonprofit uses a two-generation approach, meaning MiHC coaches and mentors interact with the often first-generation parents or guardians of the students to explain the application process, how to obtain scholarships and more.

Influenced by her own life experiences, MiHC founder and board member JoAnn Chávez said she wanted to do something “really impactful in the Hispanic community.”

“I’m first-generation everything – high school, college, law school,” Chávez said in a Zoom interview. “And I realized upon reflection that so many kids aren’t as lucky as I am. And I realized that because I sit in rooms that never looked like me.”

Years ago, Chávez, senior vice president and chief legal officer at DTE Energy, noticed that the company’s internship program looked much like the executives, very Anglo. 

Wanting to improve the program’s diversity, she worked with human resources to create DTE’s Summer Talent Exposure Program (STEP) in 2010. The program, intended to give Latino college students experience in a corporate environment, has helped more than 250 students since then and celebrates a 95% college graduation rate.

“They needed support; they needed wraparound,” Chávez said. “They needed someone to help instill the confidence in them and remind them that they belonged.”

Chávez said she wanted to expand on that success. She felt lucky that her parents, who both dropped out of Western International High School in Detroit, did what they could to help her get to college.

She studied at Notre Dame University and the University of Notre Dame Law School. But said she mostly had to learn everything – how to dress, how to act – by herself.

“I don’t want anyone else to travel my road alone,” Chávez said.

‘They don’t know how to do all this’

About 37,000 of the approximately 125,000 Latino school children in Michigan attend high school, according to state data. Nearly 4,000 of those students attend high school in Detroit.

MiHC invites high school juniors with a 2.8 GPA or higher from its target schools – César Chávez Academy High School and Western International High School – to join its scholar program. It also provides college help services to the general student population.

Target enrollment this year for the MiHC program is between 100 to 120 students.

For scholars, MiHC workers review application materials, speak with families and enroll the students in the program created for La Próxima Generación, the next generation. The enrollees receive individualized, one-on-one support over 10 years, including paid internships, priority enrollment to leadership conferences, access to professional mentors and college success coaching services. 

Perla Garibaldi, college success coach Maria Lopez, and Daniela Ortega. (Credit: MiHC) 

MiHC has partnerships with more than 13 public and private colleges/universities in Michigan. The nonprofit has relationships with campus representatives to make sure MiHC students stay connected to school-specific support systems, such as academic advising, scholarships and social events. Among the partner schools are Central Michigan University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. 

According to MiHC, only 16% of Michigan’s Latino residents overall and 4% in Detroit, have bachelor’s degrees. MiHC leaders say they wanted to build a unique program that focused on improving the economic mobility of the Latino community and believe earning a bachelor’s degree is the best way to achieve that.

Chávez formed a shell for MiHC in 2016, but spent time meeting with leaders in the Latino community in and around Detroit, people with experiences like hers – often being the first and only, often with no guidance in higher education – to narrow down the program’s focus. She also hired a consulting firm. Their goal, she said, was to make sure students were supported through many stages.

“You can’t just stop when they (students) get to college. And you can’t just stop when they graduate from college, because they don’t know how to do all this…,” she said. 

Eventually, MiHC was born, initially with funding from DTE, Chávez herself and other community members.

Focus on well-being first 

Chávez tapped Anita Martínez for the role of MiHC executive director and recalled meeting with her early in the process, before securing all the funding. 

“‘Well listen,’” Chávez remembers saying. “‘I haven’t yet raised enough money to pay your salary, your full salary, but you know, my commitment is that I will pay you if we don’t raise enough.’”

Martínez, a former United Way executive, accepted the job. Like Chávez, Martínez experienced poverty growing up. 

Seeing her parents struggle inspired Martínez to attend college. Because they couldn’t help much, Martínez also had to learn how to survive in a new world at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. College can feel like a long way from home, especially for Latino students, she noted. 

From left to right, the students holding pallets are Yoceline Orozco and Gloria Soto. (Credit: MiHC)

MiHC’s program is culturally relevant by design. Staffers and volunteers there don’t just understand the central Latino cultural value of familismo – prioritizing family over all else – they live it. Especially in a community like southwest Detroit, where many people know each other.

Martínez said she will sometimes knock on the door of a student if they haven’t responded to a message from a mentor. Having leaders and mentors like her, who understand and who have been there, is critical to MiHC’s success, she said. 

 “A lot of our college advisors and coaches themselves are first-generation,” Martínez added. “They can speak first-hand to what it was like for them, and really get at the core of whatever the challenges are, for that family as they make a family decision.”

Francisco Ramirez Rueda, a low-income, first-generation high school and college graduate, is one such counselor.

Hired in 2020, Rueda learned about MiHC while earning his master’s degree at the University of Michigan. As a college program manager, Rueda meets with students and university partners and said in the last few years COVID-19 has added another layer of obstacles.

“The pandemic heavily affected our students and their families,” Rueda said, “that is why I try to focus on their well-being first before talking about their academics.”

That approach worked well with Guerrero. In the summer of 2021, Rueda, who goes by the nickname Panchito with students, reached out to her. 

“Panchito was really just interested in my health,” Guerrero said. “… he was just interested in how I was doing, which was really unique and different.”

Guerrero returned to school in January and she credits MiHC’s support as the main factor, especially because Rueda and other MiHC advisors truly understand her situation.

“They’re gonna know perfectly what I’m going through,” she said. “That’s really, really cool to have.”

Her parents agree. Dad, José Manuel Guerrero, and mom, Esther Guerrero, came to America in 1999. Although they earned bachelor’s degrees in Mexico, mom in teaching, and dad in psychology, navigating the college system in the United States felt more intimidating. 

The couple said they struggled in helping Celine’s two elder siblings and, the parents of eight, said they were grateful when they learned about MiHC.

“We were looking for something like that, but couldn’t find it,” Esther Guerrero said. “So when Celine talked about it, I said, ‘Wow! This is what we’re looking for.’”

Plans to expand 

The Guerreros’ said they try to attend as many Cafecito parent meetings – one-on-one sessions with MiHC for parents – as possible. 

José Manuel Guerrero said having meetings with people who understand their culture and speak their language is a benefit that multiplies. He and Esther are able to share their knowledge with other parents who may feel hesitant about the college experience.

The first 24 student scholars enrolled with MiHC are expected to graduate next year. The nonprofit has served 244 scholar students so far and 241 of them have been Latino. MiHC also has offered general services to more than 800 students, 685 of those being Latino.

In its first three years, MiHC grew its budget to $1.2 million. Late last year, the organization received $2 million from the state for 2022 and 2023. The one-time appropriation will mostly go toward project enhancements, rather than organizational expenses, though the dollars as well as funds from other philanthropic entities enabled MiHC to have a $2 million operating budget this year. MiHC hopes to continue operating with at least a $2 million each year budget, and eventually expand its services to other areas with schools that serve Latinos including Allen Park and Pontiac. 

Wayne State student Ana Estefanía Sandoval joined MiHC after she began college in summer 2020. She said she signed up to hunt for scholarship and internship opportunities, but ended up getting more support than she realized she needed.

Not only did she earn a paid internship at MiHC, but she found the mental health checks from her counselors beneficial, especially because she has battled depression before, she said. 

She’s studying kinesiology in her sophomore year and plans to become a pediatric physical therapist. She’s glad she joined the program, even though she didn’t need encouragement to pursue higher education. 

“College was always mandatory for me,” Ana Estefanía Sandoval said as she shared her experiences alongside her mother, Ana Sandoval, at Momento Gelato and Coffee in Corktown. 

From left to right: Daughter Ana Estefanía Sandoval and Mom Ana Sandoval at Momento Gelato and Coffee in Corktown. (By Julie Walker)

“Since she (my mom) went to college already, it was a given that I had to go,” she added.

Ana Sandoval enjoyed the program so much, she joined, too, as a peer parent facilitator at MiHC. 

She helps with things like translating slides for parents who don’t speak English well. A first-generation college student herself, Sandoval had the tools to guide her daughter, but said she understands how intimidating the process can be.

“I like doing it because most of the parents that we’ll see in the meetings are immigrants and this is often the first time they’re sending their children to college, so they don’t know how to navigate it,” Ana Sandoval said. “Having these types of resources really gives them that motivation to support their students in getting a higher education.”

Although they have space in Detroit, MiHC hasn’t yet returned to in-person activities. Thanks to technology that includes La Puerta, a one-stop portal with resources for students and parents, much of MiHC’s work is done virtually, allowing the organization to reach more people.

As far as keeping MiHC staffed with people familiar with the hurdles and beauty of the vibrant Latino culture, they likely won’t have to look far. One young scholar already hopes to give back.

Celine Guerrero said working with people who grew up in Detroit like her, who truly understand, has inspired her to become an advisor one day, too.

“Maybe a girl could look up to me in the future and say, ‘I’m gonna go to school like she did,’” Guerrero said. 

For more information about the nonprofit or its scholar program, visit mihc@mich.org or call (313) 649-7074.

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