With WSU Students, LEI Helping the City’s Latino Community Navigate a Strange New World

April 7, 2020
By: Kristen O'Reilly

The Latino Education Institute is helping Worcester’s Latino community navigate the strange new world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Worcester State students are taking a central role in this response.

“It’s been really hard on the Latino community. There’s not a lot of information getting out there in Spanish,” says LEI Executive Director Hilda Ramirez. “We’ve been trying to help our community with translation services working through Worcester Together. Luckily, we’ve been able to retain our part-time staff, who are mostly bilingual Worcester State students.”

Ramirez says LEI’s signature afterschool programs, such as LASO (Latina Achievers in Search of Success) and ENLACE (Encouraging Latinos to Achieve Excellence), will be moving online. In the meantime, LEI staff members are checking in with families and sending care packages, anything to keep the connection going.

“We knew it would be challenging. There’s a wide technological divide among students in the public schools, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do to help. We want to be a resource for Latino students, especially where there might be a language barrier,” says Ramirez.

To help get more information out to the community, LEI is sponsoring a bilingual forum, broadcast on 106.1 FM and via Zoom and conference call, on Thursday, April 9. “A Bilingual Conversation about the Impact of COVID-19” will bring together six panelists to talk about what is happening in the community and what resources are available to assist residents. In addition to Ramirez, panelists include Dr. Mattie Castiel, commissioner of health and human services for the city of Worcester, City Councilor Sarai Rivera, Rosa Abraham of the Worcester Public Schools, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s Chief of Staff Gladys Rodriguez Parker, and Worcester Public Housing Authority Executive Director Alex Corrales.

Other LEI programs are continuing with help from Worcester State students.

Even as she figures out how to learn remotely herself, psychology major Valerie Baez ’21 is reaching out to high school students in WSU-WPS dual enrollment classes to keep them on track. Dual enrollment programs allow students to experience college-level courses while still in high school, and earn college credit at the same time.

“In helping our dual enrollment students, we make it a point to stay in communication with them,” says Baez, who helps Associate Professor Franciso Vivoni in his class Latinx Sociology. “We know that for many of our juniors and seniors, they are going through a difficult time and understand that the pandemic is difficult for them as well as their families. Having this in mind, my co-worker and I have been making phone calls home, sending text messages, and scheduling group and individual zoom meetings for our students.”

That constant outreach is vital during uncertain times, she says.

“The biggest challenges our students are facing are remote learning, preparing for their SATs, and continuing in their college processes. Some students have been able to work on their classes online while others are still waiting for their education packets,” Baez says. “We also have some students who have had their SATs pushed back and now have to prep for them online. Overall, we are doing our best to assist our students in whichever circumstance they find themselves in.”

She appreciates the flexibility of her part-time job, even as she manages her own full schedule of classes. As a Worcester native herself, she believes in LEI’s mission to improve the academic outcomes of the Latino community.

“Just one program, session, or workshop can give students tools and a new sense of confidence to excel in a space that they have not ventured in before,” she says.

Note: In the above photo, Valerie Baez helps students, prior to social distancing guidelines that were set in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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