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Shirley Acevedo Buontempo

Founder and CEO, Latino U College Access

Photo by Christopher Gregory for AARP

“Recognize that making a difference starts with just one person, one idea. By taking a single step and surrounding yourself with others who share your passion, you can accomplish incredible things.”

I started Latino U College Access (LUCA) in 2012, when I was 49, because while I believe that potential is universal in all children, opportunity is not. LUCA’s mission is to increase college enrollment and completion among low-income Latino youths who are the first in their families to go to college. We work toward this goal by providing culturally relevant, bilingual support to them and their families. So far, nearly 200 Latino U scholars have successfully enrolled in college and are on the path to a brighter future.

The problem I’m trying to solve

A college education is the single most important factor in breaking the cycle of poverty and transforming lives for generations to come. Yet Latinos have nearly the lowest college attainment of all ethnic groups, with half as many earning a college degree as white college students. Low-income, first-generation Latino college students face many barriers and challenges when it comes to admissions and success. They and their parents are often confused and deterred by the higher education system and the complexity of the college application and financial aid processes.

I am inspired every day by the students and families we serve. It’s amazing to be able to help make college dreams a reality for high-potential and motivated young people who represent the future of our communities, our workforce and our country.

The moment that sparked my passion

When my older daughter, who is now 26, began her college search, I was shocked at how complex and expensive admissions had become. Even though my husband and I were both college graduates, this was an overwhelming experience for us. At the same time, I was working at a local nonprofit assisting Latino families, and I worried about how they, with fewer resources or support, could ever do this for their children.

I was simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, conducting research on first-generation Latino students in higher education. That research led to my piloting LUCA with two students, Kevin and Alejandra. When they were both accepted to four-year universities on full scholarships, their joy and elation inspired me to continue this work and help many more young people and families in our community fulfill their college dreams.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Recognize that making a difference starts with just one person, one idea. By taking a single step and surrounding yourself with others who share your passion, you can accomplish incredible things.

Why my approach is unique

In seven years, LUCA has become a proven model of success. This year we received 100 nominations for 40 spots from our four partner school districts. Some 91 percent of LUCA scholars are enrolled in four-year universities, with half attending highly selective institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Cornell and Columbia. We support our scholars from their junior year of high school through college completion with workshops, volunteer college coaching and career internships. We don’t rest until after our scholars graduate and we know their next step, whether it’s a full-time job or grad school.

At LUCA we are a dedicated and caring familia, working together in a shared mission. It’s an essential part of both LUCA and our culture as Latinos.