Café Con Leche

Hispanic Community September 2021 PREMIUM
Supporting William Paterson University’s Hispanic/Latino/a Latinx Students

Written by Maria Karidis Daniels

What started as a way to bring William Paterson University’s Latinx community together in an open, welcoming space has since evolved into a glowing example of how to holistically support college students—especially those students from diverse backgrounds.

The University’s weekly Café con Leche program was developed as a way to reimagine conventional ways of helping students on their journey to a college degree.

Created by Francisco Diaz, Associate Vice President for Student Development, and Maribel Rodriguez, Associate Director of Campus Activities, Service and Leadership, Café con Leche debuted on William Paterson’s campus in Wayne, New Jersey in fall 2018 as a pilot program—“afternoon gatherings to bring together Latinx students, faculty and staff to socialize, address various questions, and establish a welcome space for us to engage in where English, Spanish, and of course ‘Spanglish’ could be spoken freely and without judgement,” Diaz explains. “Everyone is welcome.”

In a casual group setting, peppered with a cultural comfort base, students started coming to Café con Leche meetings with plenty of questions and concerns for faculty and staff in attendance, thereby shaping meeting agendas and creating a very influential student support resource on campus.

“We discuss topics impacting the Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx communities, as well as have workshops on wellness, career advisement, financial literacy, leadership development opportunities, civic engagement, campus resources, networking, and academic development,” Rodriguez says. “We provide ways for students to navigate William Paterson University.”

Today, almost 20 Latinx faculty and staff from all sectors on campus regularly contribute to Café con Leche meetings, which tend to attract about 20 student participants each week. Non-Latinx employees often join meetings to share information from their respective departments, and non-Latinx students often drop in after hearing about the group from others on campus.

William Paterson was designated, on the federal level, as both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and a Minority-Serving Institution in 2015. Approximately 35 percent of the University’s students self-identify as Latinx, and 60 percent self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

Cafe con Leche made me feel comfortable speaking up on issues I felt needed to be addressed or personal information that can potentially help me grow in a professional setting,” says Mikaela Gongora, a May 2021 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication. “It gave me a voice to speak up as a Latina woman in a place where our voices are usually shut down.”

Often, in higher education, “it’s on students to come to us,” says David Fuentes, professor of education, and a regular attendee at the meetings. “They have to find the information, time, and courage to meet with different faculty and staff in their offices to ask questions, surrounded by other faculty and staff, in a more formal one-on-one environment that can feel intimidating.”

Café con Leche turns the tables on that model, creating an intersection of student engagement and University support services. By bringing the offices to the spaces already populated by students, the program closes the gap between administrative support and student need.

Beyond traditional support, though, Café Con Leche provides personal support, one wherein Latinx members of the WP community feel they can be their true selves.

“There were a lot of reasons I took part in Café Con Leche but mainly because I felt it was a safe space for me. Seeing other students and staff there who are first-gen students like me made me feel like I had a home on campus,” says Bryan Francisco, a May 2021 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in public health.

Employees who regularly attend Café con Leche meetings have become a family of madrinas and padrinos for Latinx students—in other words, their godparents: persons who quite often take on the role of mentors and support systems in Latinx cultures.

“All of our madrinas y padrinos make this environment a safe and enjoyable space for us to come together and make our ideas heard,” Gongora says. “It’s refreshing to know that there are people here at William Paterson University who actually take our feelings into consideration and really want to make a difference in our lives.”

With the return to full campus activities for fall 2021, students are once again gathering together in person for Café con Leche programs. In addition, a new Center for Latinidad, which opened in September 2021, will provide more opportunities for understanding and awareness of the cultural wealth and resiliency of the Latinx identity and experience. The Center, under the auspices of the University’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, will offer a new mentoring program and other support services for students.

Café con Leche has taught students to embrace their heritage. “One important thing I’ve learned is to always be proud of where you came from and don’t forget your roots,” Francisco says. “They shaped you to be who you are today.”

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