How Latino students in Hillsborough are finding a path to college

TAMPA — Briseida Flores wants to keep fighting for her dream.

She is planning to apply to the University of South Florida next year to study criminology. As a high school senior at Strawberry Crest School in Dover, she knows the future is in her hands.

“I’m excited to start a new journey and have the opportunity to pursue a higher education,” Flores said.

She found a path to her goals through a program called “Pasos al futuro” (Steps to the future), a Spanish-only college information program for eighth to 12th grade students. The initiative, which includes workshops, is part of an educational effort by the Hillsborough County Public Schools district.

Last week Flores, 17, attended a workshop at USF with her father, Ricardo, to learn about the college admissions process and how to search for scholarships and financial aid opportunities.

In the 17 years since the program began, it has created a supportive community that amplifies the importance of higher education and enables an easy transition to college. For many, it’s helped them become the first in their family to benefit from a college education.

Florida has the third-largest Latino student population in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the Tampa Bay area, more than 80,000 students identify as Hispanic, like Flores.

Elvis Santiago, 21, a cybersecurity student who was born in Tampa, said his transition to college would have been more difficult without the program.

His parents, Mauricio and Nieves, were unable to help him pay for college. They came from Mexico more than two decades ago to work in the fields of Plant City. They were always struggling to make ends meet.

But Santiago qualified for financial aid from several sources, including the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMPA), a federally funded initiative that provides financial assistance and services to students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds.

“Pasos al futuro encouraged me and fueled my desire to be the first in my family to go to college,” Santiago said.

Zoila Ramirez de Roman, from the Dominican Republic, attended the workshop with her daughter Sofía, 14, a ninth grade student at Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School in Tampa.

Ramirez de Roman came to the U.S. with her family a year and a half ago. She and her husband were looking for better educational opportunities for Sofía and her eldest daughter, Isabella Carolina, 18.

The Spanish program is unique, Ramirez de Roman said, and emphasizes student participation. The lessons they learned transcend language, she said.

“It has definitely been an enriching experience,” said Ramirez de Roman.

Sofía said she valued the program because it made her realize that students just like her have the opportunity to pursue a good education.

“I liked it a lot because normally I can’t get much information in Spanish on those topics,” she said.

Flores was born in North Carolina, where her parents were working in summer 2005 picking strawberries, tomatoes and blueberries.

When her family moved to Plant City, Flores was determined to continue to be a good student. She learned the value of responsibility and perseverance from her parents, Ricardo and Yaneht, who are from Mexico. She said they helped her to pursue her dreams to attend college next year. And they wanted to be involved.

Pasos al futuro has special value in households like hers, Flores said, where English is not spoken.

“My parents want an education for me,” she said. “They didn’t have that option. Everything depends on my effort.”

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