Leveling the playing field for Hispanic students

Latino U College Access (LUCA) helps high-achieving but underserved Latino students from Hispanic-majority high schools in Elmsford, Ossining, Sleepy Hollow and White Plains attain the dream of becoming the first in their families to graduate from college.

Latino U College Access (LUCA) helps high-achieving but underserved Latino students from Hispanic-majority high schools in Elmsford, Ossining, Sleepy Hollow and White Plains attain the dream of becoming the first in their families to graduate from college. This year the White Plains nonprofit is working with 98 high school students and 172 college students – having guided them through everything from the SATs and ACTs to college applications and essays and financial aid forms. The numbers speak for themselves, with 65% of participants attending private colleges and 35% public. Overall, 98% complete college in four to six years (as compared to the national average of 54% for Hispanic students.) Of the LUCA attendees, 56% pursue studies in the STEM disciplines.

But it’s not just the students who benefit. The program operates under the premise that when you help a student, you help the individual’s family. This year, LUCA scholars are receiving $6.7 million in financial aid. That means the average annual out-of-pocket cost per family is $3,730. Without such financial and experiential assistance, college would be out of reach for these students.

The two women who guide LUCA know all about the hurdles of being the first in their Hispanic-American families to graduate from college and build successful careers and lives. That’s why Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, LUCA’s CEO, founded the nonprofit in 2012. Like Buontempo, deputy executive director Cosette Gutierrez has used a distinguished career in the corporate world as a springboard for her work in the nonprofit sector.

Now as LUCA looks forward to its 10th anniversary, Buontempo is passing the day-to-day baton to Gutierrez, who has become executive director, with Buontempo slipping into her new position as strategic growth officer.

“When I launched LUCA, I was conscious of what’s best for the organization,” Buontempo says. “It’s time for me to step aside and take on a new role.”

The transition comes at a time when LUCA has been recognized by NBC 4 New York/WNBC, Telemundo 47/WNJU and the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation with a $60,000 Project Innovation challenge grant. It’s one of eight tristate organizations to be so honored. The funds will no doubt come in handy as LUCA looks toward its goals, which include bringing New Rochelle, Peekskill, Port Chester and Yonkers high schools into the program. Indeed, not even the pandemic has stopped LUCA’s outreach.

“One would think it would’ve made us shutter,” says Gutierrez, who joined LUCA as deputy executive director in February of last year, just as the pandemic hit. “But it opened up the opportunity to rethink our approach and leverage technology and our outreach….We engaged more students, volunteers and families.”

Ultimately, LUCA is about overcoming challenges to change lives.

“We believe in the transformative power of education,” Buontempo says. “Our goal is to give that same transformative experience to our (LUCA) children.”

Each woman, however, has taken a different path to that transformation:

Shirley Acevedo Buontempo

Born in Puerto Rico and raised there until age 10, Buontempo subsequently grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of a bus driver and a secretary in an accounting office. “I was told that college was not a serious option,” she says. But through a combination of scholarships, student loans, federal and state help and a work-study program, Buontempo received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Pace University in White Plains. 

“I was fortunate that I landed in Hispanic marketing,” she says. At divisions of Grey Advertising, Saatchi & Saatchi and at CPC International, Buontempo was an account and brand manager for TV, print and radio ads targeting a Hispanic audience. 

At some point, however, she realized, “I don’t want to sell corn oil.” In 2001, she moved to the nonprofit world, where, she says, “I have found it very fulfilling to provide people with social services.”

At the Community Center of Northern Westchester in Katonah, which helps neighbors in need with food, clothing and programming, Buontempo served as assistant director and a member of the board. (She’s a northern Westchester resident, living in Somers with her husband and two daughters.) At Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco, which helps to integrate immigrants into the community, she was program and volunteer manager while pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree from Pace.

What she realized was that while there were many talented Latino students, they faced barriers that were not just financial but rather systemic. Thus LUCA was born.

The organization has brought Buontempo recognition in Fortune, Time and Hispanic Executive magazines and a 2019 AARP Purpose Prize.

But beyond honors, LUCA has given her “a passionate vocation and a purpose to my life, and I’m excited to see what the next 10 years will bring.”

Cosette Gutierrez

At first glance, you might think it unlikely that Gutierrez would attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the child of a single mother who worked in the bridal business in the Garment District. But Gutierrez’s mother “instilled in me the value of an education,” she says. And her guidance counselor at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, looking at her math and science grades, encouraged Gutierrez to shoot for MIT. So she typed up her application — and was accepted.

With her mother unable to afford the tuition, Gutierrez had to rely on other sources, such as a student loan and a work-study program. In the end, there were no out of pocket expenses for her mother, who nonetheless sent her daughter $20 every two weeks to make sure she had spending money for something she might need.

At first, Gutierrez says, the MIT environment was “intimidating.” Students usually waited for their families to bring the rest of their gear to the college. Gutierrez arrived with all of her belongings, because she knew her mother could not make the trek.

“But I also knew this was a way to change my family dynamic forever,” she says. At first, she thought about becoming an engineer but realized that was not the way she wanted to apply her math skills. Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and an MBA from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

Gutierrez sees her subsequent career in three phases. “The first was all about banking,” she says.

Her work for Citibank and Bank of America took her across the country and, in the case of Citibank, as far as Buenos Aires. 

“Banking is very progressive,” she says. “It’s predominantly women, although very often they’re at the lower level. But I always found myself working for and with amazing women and amazing women of color.” 

Indeed, she had only one experience in which she didn’t see herself reflected in the workplace and that was when she worked briefly in the aerospace industry and found herself surrounded by older, white military men.

Gutierrez’s next, transitional phase took her to Target, community relations and locales across the country as she managed more than $30 million annually in corporate charitable giving. This led her to her next phase in the nonprofit world. At DonorsChoose — which matches teachers in need with those who can help fund their projects — Gutierrez served as vice president of fulfillment operations. It was at DonorsChoose that she heard about LUCA.

Today, the Bronxville resident watches her young cousins go off to college with pride. When one went to Harvard, Gutierrez says, “She told me, ‘I knew I could do it, because you did.’”

For more, visit latinoucollege.org.

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