La Villa Hispana

With Fiesta of Hope scholarships in pocket, Clark-Fulton students look forward to brighter futures

Samuel Paredes was 16 years old when he secretly applied for a U.S. visa. His parents had just gotten divorced, and he was still living in Ipiales, a city of 160,000 on the southern border of Colombia. Shortly after the death of his grandmother, he expressed to his mother and father his desire to study cybersecurity—born from witnessing political upheaval—at an American college.

Instead, they wanted Paredes to join the military.

“I was feeling hopeless at this time,” he said. “My parents weren’t really convinced about my career choice. But, for me, my decision was already made.”

Samuel Paredes, a future student of cybersecurity from Ipiales, Columbia, speaks about his specific struggles obtaining a U.S. student visa, Friday, June 21st at the Cleveland Renaissance BallroomAfter landing a one-year exchange visa at a private school in Cleveland, Paredes—like a myriad of immigrants uncertain of their political standing—faced the inevitable: secure a longer visa, or return home.

Along with hundreds of other teenagers bent on getting an American college education, Paredes turned to Esperanza, Inc., a social service agency in Clark-Fulton that’s been helping Hispanic students launch themselves to college campuses for 36 years. Since the 1980s, they’ve reportedly administered over $1.2 million in scholarships (helping over 1,000 parents and students annually), while evolving to meet the needs of today’s wave of Puerto Rican emigres and DACA kids.

On Friday, June 21, Paredes was one of 100 scholarship award recipients recognized at the Fiesta of Hope luncheon, held at the Renaissance Hotel ballroom. Hundreds of supporters of Esperanza gathered to support the diverse group of teenagers bound for 15 different colleges across the country.

Victor Ruiz, executive director of Esperanza and host of Friday’s ceremony, said that being an educational sidecar in today’s social climate is absolutely pivotal when it comes to supporting the Hispanic community. Along with the help of Esperanza's annual stipends ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, Ruiz believes students also need a guidance figure to help “navigate the bureaucracy” and Ohio’s historically-tough transfer system (which Ruiz says poses extra obstacles to monolingual immigrants and those without clear school transcripts).

One 2019 scholarship recipient who knows this firsthand is Luz Rodriguez, a native of Patillas, Puerto Rico who relocated to Cleveland in 2014 with her grandmother in pursuit of a professional life. In her acceptance speech, Rodriguez made note of the particular challenges Hispanic girls face when pursuing higher education, a struggle that—although ending with a job as an intake specialist at the Spanish-American Committee—was fraught with depression “to the point where I was hospitalized.”

Other issues abound for those who seek Ruiz’s help: a dwindling morale, low GPAs and unavoidable pressures from life at home.

“Many of these kids have to work to support their families, or delay their high school graduation,” Ruiz said. “If it takes you two years to get caught up because of math? That could be really discouraging and disheartening.”

Although Hispanic college education is historically low in the U.S. (in 2016, 47 percent of whites had a college education, compared with 22 percent of Latinos), recent data paints a vibrant future of growth. In its 2017 Condition of Education report, the U.S. Department of Education found that since 2000, the percentage of Hispanics that “have attained a bachelor’s or higher degree” increased from 10 to 19 percent—with the number of master's degrees having doubled. That growth, Ruiz suggests, has much to do with “a rise of success at the community college level.”

Noticing this spike, administrators at Cuyahoga Community College looked one year ago to Clark-Fulton as a prime location to open up one of two new Access Centers—small satellite “campuses” set in low-mobility communities and those with high illiteracy rates. (Currently, about 35 percent of Clark-Fulton residents lack a high school diploma.)

Though details of class offerings and curricula aren’t finalized, JaNice Marshall, Tri-C’s Vice President, says that the new center being set in the same building as Esperanza isn’t at all a coincidence.

William Roberts, a longtime Esperanza donor receives a special award of recognition from executive director Victor Ruiz“We could have picked somewhere else differently on the West Side,” Marshall said. “But we really saw a great opportunity to deepen and develop [Esperanza’s] work. For us, it’s simply about lowering barriers.”

As far as easing Tri-C’s transfer credits for international students—a complaint board member Ruiz notes—Marshall says the institution’s come a long way in the past several years. “Previous years, students would have had to start all over,” she said. “Now, I think we’ve worked out all the kinks.”

As for Paredes, who managed to land a five-year student visa with Ruiz’s help, the college-bound Cleveland convert lauds Esperanza for its persistence battling what most Latin immigrants face on a daily basis: great mental blockades in between them and their goals.

This year, he’ll be the first in his family en route to a bachelor’s.

“It's going to be frustrating for people like me,” he says. “It's going to be hard the first time. People will tell you it's better to go back to your home country [or] your parents' house. But I say, ‘You have to manage your fear. You have to keep going.’”

This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.