At the corner of 156th Street and Broadway in New York, lies one of the city’s best kept secrets: Boricua College.
The college is the brainchild of Puerto Rican activists and scholars, including Dr. Antonia Pantoja, the first Latina woman to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose pursuit of equity in education helped create a bilingual education and English-as-a-second-language programming that Latinx K-12 students use in the city today. Boricua College is the first private, nonprofit institution in the continental United States to be built for the express purpose of serving the Puerto Rican population of New York.
Since 1992, the federal government has officially recognized institutions that serve more than 25% Latinx students as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). The Latinx population is the fastest growing population in the United States. According to data from Excellence in education!, an organization that promotes Latinx student success in higher education, 569 institutions identify as HSI in 2020, representing 18% of all colleges and universities.
But just because a college meets the population requirements to be an HSI doesn’t guarantee the institution is making adjustments to serve its Latinx students, said Excelencia CEO and President, Dr. Deborah Santiago. Boricua College, however, has incorporated this service into its very mission.
Santiago said an organization like Boricua College can be so focused on serving its direct community that it doesn’t focus so much on marketing, which can lead to greater sustainability concerns. According to Rosalia Cruz, director of financial aid at Boricua College, enrollment has been down since the pandemic. The fall 2021 numbers haven’t improved, Cruz said, because the vaccination requirement may have deterred some students from returning. The majority of recruitment comes from word of mouth, direct connection within the city’s boroughs, which is part of why so many people pass by the college unaware of how much Boricua raises a lot for the Latinx community. At New York.
For nearly fifty years, Boricua College has established a holistic system of support for approximately 1,200 full-time students as they earn associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in human services, business, and education. Boricua graduates have become leaders within their communities, opening their own daycares, becoming elementary school teachers and honing their skills in activism.
Despite enrollment challenges, Boricua College prioritizes funding for its students, most of whom are adult learners. Each student who starts at Boricua College receives a laptop and a printer. The retention rate for first-year students is 82%. The college was able to use just under $4 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economy Security Act) funds and the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to pay off student debt persistent. Just under half of these students identify as Puerto Rican, while 40% identify as Latinx of other backgrounds. Approximately 14% of Boricua students identify as black and 6% identify as white, Asian-American Pacific Islander, or Native American.
A little marketing can be seen on buses and in subway advertisements across New York, but Dina J. Harris and Evette Camacho, two college admissions staffers, generally recruit new students through direct contact. Harris and Camacho spend many hours pounding the pavement and sharing fliers. Harris, who has worked in admissions for eight years, has learned to intentionally target potential new students, adding that she has developed a sort of sixth sense that helps her determine who will be receptive to her.
“I invite them to come for a simple visit, without any obligation,” Harris said. “But usually they’re looking for a change.”
Those who accept the invitation meet Harris or Camacho on campus and receive a visit from a current student. They are guided through the financial aid process where they meet Principal Cruz, who has worked at Boricua College for 34 years. They run up and down the unassuming grand staircase of the Manhattan campus and gaze out through wide windows with views of the courtyard of the Museum of Hispanic Heritage, located next door. Nine times out of ten, Harris said, these potential new students enroll.
Staying small is key to Boricua’s ability to fully support its students in the way its pedagogy demands. Everyone works by their first name, there are no strangers here. Every Boricua faculty member, and most staff, is bilingual. Although Boricua’s teaching is entirely in English, teachers are able to fully communicate with their students and clarify questions in their native language.
Boricua educates with what he calls “The Five Ways to Learn”. The key elements are the student, the facilitator and five areas of focus: individualized study, colloquium, experiential study, theoretical study and cultural study.
Theoretical and cultural studies concern courses in science, mathematics, literature and history. But that’s where the similarity to many four-year-old establishments ends. At Boricua, all students are guided through their educational journey through one-on-one weekly meetings with their faculty member facilitator. These meetings are a combination of academic and social counseling – they help the student succeed not only in their classes but also in life.
“This individual study teaches the student how to improve their writing and thinking, and helps them to become better human beings,” said Roberto Guilbe, senior officer of the admissions department at Boricua College. Guilbe is 80 years old and has worked at Boricua since 1980. He is technically retired, but still comes to college at least twice a week to help out and occasionally salsa dance during the holidays. Guilbe, Cruz and other teachers who have spent decades walking the halls of Boricua are honored with the title of “founders”.
Once a week, the facilitator brings together all the students he supervises (about 10 in total, since the pandemic) for an in-person discussion called a colloquium. Often students are confronted with ideas with which they are unfamiliar or opinions with which they do not agree. The students then go home and write a journal about what they heard, saw and felt.
All students attending Boricua are also required to complete experiential training, where they shadow workers in their field and possibly participate in internships or apprenticeships during their junior and senior years. Their facilitator helps them evaluate and process their experiences on the spot.
This five-part pedagogy is embedded in faculty and staff. They can all recite the principles of the practice by heart, but if they forget there is usually an abstract graphic printed and pinned to the nearest cork board. At the bottom, a quote: “Learning as a process of self-integration”, a nod to how education can open up a person’s consciousness.
Boricua’s holistic support made all the difference for Yentil Morales, who started his studies at the City University of New York (CUNY) and found himself overwhelmed and floundering after one semester. When she returned home during the winter break and told her mother that she no longer wanted to go to university, her mother kindly redirected her. Instead of quitting altogether, she suggested, why not attend her alma mater, Boricua College?
Morales was nervous about making the switch but found her concerns unfounded. She graduated in nine semesters with her associate and bachelor’s degrees in social services.
“I ended up here, as a student,” Morales said. “They prepare you, help you grow. The skills I learned here, I apply them every day.
The experience is so unique, Morales said, that often students who leave Boricua often end up coming back. Camacho, in admissions, was one such student. She quit school to raise her family, but never lost her determination to return. Fifteen years later, she has nearly completed her Bachelor of Commerce degree.
These success stories and the family atmosphere of the college keep students coming back long after graduation, checking on old friends. Morales worked in the financial aid office while she attended school. She ended up staying after graduation.
Boricua is “the heart of what an HSI should be,” Santiago said. “Giving students a sense of identity that works around them, rather than expecting students to fit in with institutions.”
Santiago said the creation and sustainability of Boricua College is inspiring. For those who know it, it is an institution that knows how to intentionally serve its population.
“Here you have a college whose mission is to serve the Puerto Rican population, which has expanded to not just serve Latinos — that’s a mission that sets it apart,” Santiago said. “As a smaller institution, promoting what makes you unique is not an easy thing to do. But, to me, they can be examples of the kind of institution that meets the community where they are, to serve them well, rather than just expecting students to conform to a traditional higher education structure. .
Liann Herder can be contacted at [email protected]