Going Forward Together

By John C. Stevenson, '90

 USC Upstate Avanzando Program 2021

When she began her college career at USC Upstate, Miriam Elizalde faced many uncertainties. Today, she credits the Avanzando Through College program with helping her find the guidance and support to successfully navigate her way through school.

Avanzando (from the Spanish for going forward) Through College is focused on helping ensure that Latinx students have the support they need for a successful college career. For Elizalde, who went through the program as a sophomore, that meant help exploring a world to which she had received little substantive exposure through her previous life experiences.

Sofia Villegas talks about her family during an Avanzando gathering where students shared items that represented their family, culture or background.

“At the time, I was a nursing major, and I was really dedicated to my nursing classes,” Elizalde recalls. “But Avanzando really helped me know what I wanted to do. When I was a sophomore, I really didn’t know a lot about the services and things that they have here at Upstate, so I was basically like a freshman. Since I’m a first-generation (college) student also, it was hard to go from high school to college – it was so complicated. It was the first time I was living it; no one in my family had ever gone to college.”

Avanzando provides a wide array of benefits to each participating group of up to 30 students, ranging from weekly group meetings to one-on-one mentoring, and even including up to $500 cash stipends for students who participate fully. The one-year (two-semester) program was created through a $25,000 grant from UnidosUS and focuses on freshmen and sophomores from Latinx backgrounds or who come from low-income households, are first-generation college students or are English-language learners.

The program debuted at USC Upstate in 2019.

Elizalde credits Avanzando Through College with helping her be successful at USC Upstate.

“It was hard for me to understand the dynamics in college and how to manage my time,” she says. “It really helped me build connections, and not only at Upstate, but in the community. One of the biggest things that helped me is they have a time-management class where they taught us different styles of managing your time and different study strategies. I learned things like how to have a planner, how to plan things, and how to focus not only on college stuff, but to have fun at the same time.”

Elizalde says she also discovered a different path, thanks to her experiences and the guidance she received via Avanzando. She’s currently majoring in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on biology and psychology, and wants to pursue a career as an occupational therapist.

Laisha Labra displays a rock one of her family members brought to the U.S. from the mines of Mexico.

But while Avanzando helped prepare the USC Upstate student for a promising future, she says one of the most important benefits of the program was being a part of the group.

“The thing I think I enjoyed the most was the community amongst the different people that were there,” she says. “I’ve never seen so many people like me in one room.”

That sense of community is central to Avanzando Through College, according to Susannah Waldrop, executive director of the Student Success Center at USC Upstate.

“It’s all about success in college,” Waldrop explains. “Some of it is about study skills and how to build relationships on campus – whether it’s with your instructors or your classmates. Some of it’s about mental-health check-ins, and some of it’s about financial stuff,” ranging from organizing one’s personal finances and how to budget, to financial-aid options at USC Upstate.

But another dimension of the program gives Latinx students the opportunity to “celebrate their identity,” Waldrop says. “It’s about who they are and what they bring to the table.

“We try to cover a wide gamut of stuff that focuses on success, but the other thing is the sense of community amongst themselves,” she continues. “Frequently here, students talk about ‘how nice it is to be in a classroom with people who look like me.’ Just about everyone in there has roots in the Latinx community.”

Araceli Hernández-Laroche, associate professor of modern languages at USC Upstate, has worked with the program since its inception in 2019. She said Avanzando Through College benefits not only the participating students, but the entire university.

“I feel that this program really shifts the culture of the institution to really think about serving Hispanic/Latinx students,” she says. “And when we gather students with specific resources for them, where we provide culturally responsive support services, guidance and mentorship, that’s going to go a long way for these students to develop a sense of belonging.”

And, she adds, while students may still be self-conscious about being the only Hispanic/Latino person in some of their classes, “with this, we anchor them, hopefully, with self-confidence, with the know-how to navigate their college career.”