Built on hope: Esperanza wins national recognition for Latinx education

In its efforts to build relationships and provide support to Cleveland’s Latinx community, Clark-Fulton-based Esperanza makes secondary education a priority.

“Our secret sauce is in working with our students,” says Esperanza post secondary program director Germaine Peña. “Back when I was scholarship recipient, I had an Esperanza advisor who was very flexible. She was    caring and also demonstrated tough love. She would call me if I missed deadlines, and even when I was    overwhelmed, she helped me get things done.”

Esperanza’s post secondary program—which provides college mentoring, college scholarships, and offers support to first-generation Latinx students in their first and second years of college through its Lideres Avanzando (Advancing Leaders), a leadership development program.

The post secondary program was recognized with the national organization Excelencia In Education’s 2022 Example of Excelencia for Community Based Organizations designation.

The award is the only national data-driven initiative to recognize programs accelerating Latinx success in higher education.

The designation establishes Esperanza as a national model for effective, culturally responsive programming to further Latinx college success. In 2020, 99% of the students participating in Esperanza's college support programs succeeded in college.

Esperanza will now guide local organizations across the country in building support programs that work for Latinx students. 

Esperanza's comprehensive post-secondary programming includes scholarships, instruction on how to navigate the complicated college system, mentoring, case management, and internship opportunities.

Esperanza interns

Esperanza first launched in 1984 as a community project that gave away a single scholarship of $250 that first year. The organization, whose name means “hope” in Spanish, has grown to where it gives out more than $100,000 in scholarships each year to Cleveland area students. Its goal is to help primarily Spanish-speaking students navigate high school and college and emerge with a degree that unlocks higher earning potential and greater self-assurance.

“We have [scholarship] students coast to coast,” Peña says, adding that, in addition to direct aid, the students are invited to hear from speakers and to work with mentors. “Our different workshops prepare students so they are successful in navigating their college experience and can leverage on-campus resources.”

Sam ParedesSam Paredes says he hopes Esperanza will help him achieve his dream of one day starting his own cyber security firm. As a foreign exchange student from Columbia, Paredes spoke no English when he arrived in Cleveland in 2017.

“When I arrived, I was not able to hold a conversation at all in the first two weeks,” Paredes recalls of his arrival alone in Cleveland at age 16. “I got involved in the after-school program at Esperanza and that helped me understand the difference in how the culture works.”

Five years after coming to Cleveland, Paredes says Esperanza helped him settle in to his new surroundings. While attending school, Paredes enrolled in an after-school program at Esperanza.

“It feels like home,” he says of the organization. “They provide really good advice. Not only academic and professional but also personal.”

Paredes says the guidance and companionship Esperanza offered helped him focus on his future. “I was obsessed with computers [but the money my] parents earn will not be enough to pursue a college degree, so [I needed] to look for scholarship.”

He was encouraged by his guidance counselor when he attended James Ford Rhodes High School in Old Brooklyn to apply for, and earn, one of Esperanza’s college scholarships. The award allowed Paredes to attend Baldwin Wallace University as a cyber security major. He expects to graduate this spring with his bachelor’s degree.

For the first two decades of its existence, Esperanza focused on closing the achievement gap for area Latinx high school students, boosting graduation rates and promoting college for those who showed aptitude and interest.

In 2016 the organization expanded and formalized its post-secondary program, which trains students in what it takes to make it in college—focusing on mentorships, financial literacy, leadership training, and social-emotional support.

For first-generation college students like Paredes, the program has become
culturally responsive, with effective asset-based efforts in recruiting, retaining, graduating, and preparing Latino students for success in the workforce,” according to wording in the Excelencia award.

“Esperanza was founded as a scholarship initiative,” says Germaine Peña, manager of the Esperanza’s post-secondary program. “One of the main reasons why [we started it] was to promote post-secondary education. Leaders in our community recognized that there was a big gap in higher education.”

Peña speaks from experience. She was also a scholarship recipient and intern at Esperanza, and says the organization closes the achievement gap.

“In the early 2000s, the Latino graduation rate was 30%,” she explains. “Esperanza partnered with Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) to make sure students had opportunities to graduate from high school. Fast forward, we now have [nearly] 100% graduation rate from Esperanza students.”

Part of Esperanza’s success in closing the achievement gap over the past six years has been in building up its presence at 11 CMSD high schools. The organization works with guidance counselors at the schools to funnel Spanish-speaking students to Esperanza, where staff work on improving their social and emotional skills and college preparedness.

Peña says the key to growing the program and winning credibility with the students is to be firm and yet flexible.

“They’re allowed to struggle and fail,” she says, “it’s about how they recover from that. We’ve seen students go from academic probation to being stellar students. It’s about finding what works because each [student] is different. It’s about managing their time effectively and meeting all responsibilities that they have.”

Dean Koch, an Esperanza’s College Scholarship Program mentorEsperanza is like an ecosystem supporting growth and diversity, says Dean Koch, a marketing professional based in Chagrin Falls who volunteers as a mentor for Esperanza students. Koch recounts a time when he was in high school when he was discouraged from going to college because of his grade point average. In that way, he says he understands that first-generation college students may be navigating peer pressure to forgo college.

“There may be people saying, ‘don’t go,’ or, ‘you’re going to be borrowing [a lot of] money,’” he says.

Koch says he tries to impart that college is still the best way to unlock generational wealth.

“In my mind, if you borrow $30,000 to go to [Cleveland State University], that’s a tremendous investment in yourself,” he says. “Wealth creation comes more typically with a college degree and a job with full benefits and 401k matching and when your income is sufficient to buy a home.”

Samuel NoyolaTranslating sacrifice into success
To Samuel Noyola, a first-generation college graduate in his 20s, there’s a unique set of pressures, such as forgoing work that supports the family.

“If I didn’t graduate from high school, all of my family’s sacrifice would have been in vain,” Noyola shares. “I passed the [GED] by one point, and the only reason I passed was because of Esperanza and it's after school tutoring.”

The Noyola family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York and eventually moved to Cleveland. Noyola was the first in his family to finish high school in Cleveland and, when it came time to consider his next step, Esperanza helped him make the leap.

Noyola joined Lideres Avanzando, in which he says he learned to navigate financial aid while also getting a nudge toward independence with assignments that required him to meet with instructors and inquire about internships.

“I was able to learn, head on, how you should deal with college,” he says. “As a first-generation student, we have to have organizations like Esperanza who understand our situation.”

Noyola says the Lideres program led to a college internship working with a financial planner and, when it came time to transfer from Cuyahoga Community College to CSU, it gave him the confidence to negotiate for the best financial aid package among his choices.

Since graduating from CSU with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business management, Noyola has become a financial representative with the Cleveland financial planning firm Northwestern Mutual.

“I got into this business because I wish someone had done this with my family,” he says. “I help businesses and families grow in an efficient way, and that’s basically what Esperanza does; they help first generation students grow in an efficient way, based on the obstacles they normally face.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.