With a student population of less than 8%, the Latino community at Penn State has been a small, yet important group on campus, according to many students within that community.
Representatives of the Latino Caucus in the University Park Undergraduate Association have continued to navigate problems Latinos face, making changes with their platforms — starting with the lack of representation within Penn State’s student government.
Refugio Lara first got involved in UPUA during his freshman year after being involved with his student government in high school.
Lara (senior-biochemistry) later became the Latino Caucus representative and part of the Justice and Equity Committee, a subgroup within UPUA, during his sophomore year.
He described the initial part of his journey as a representative as “hard and high-pressure” due to the number of rules and meetings that need to be taken care of.
“In the beginning, it was definitely more difficult, but as time went on, you got into the flow of things, and things got a little easier,” Lara said.
Among the many challenges, Lara said what helped him the most when becoming a representative was talking to others in the organization, as many of them were willing to help.
“I would say it’s very easy to make connections and friends in UPUA, and those connections really help you throughout the process,” Lara said.
As a former representative for Latino Caucus, Lara made the decision to recognize Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month because he felt there wasn’t enough recognition of it on campus.
Lara said he was present when the student government added seats for Latino Caucus, the Penn State Student Black Caucus and Lion Pride, an LGBTQ student group.
Lara said there is still a lot of work to do, specifically with funding and how the money in UPUA is spent among different communities.
“I feel like UPUA has a lot of money, and it would be great if the Latinx community could maybe receive a bigger chunk of it,” Lara said.
He said he wants to bring awareness to the money UPUA has for funding multicultural events for organizations. He said the group has to ask for funding “in the right way.”
When he was a representative, as one of the few Latino members of UPUA, Lara described the lack of Latino representation as an “intimidating” and “uncomfortable feeling,” remembering less than half a dozen members of his community present.
When it comes to getting greater Latino student representation in organizations or clubs, Lara said what was missing was “outreach,” as it can be intimidating to walk into a room as the only Latino.
Lara said the outreach should not only come from the caucus leaders but also from general leadership within UPUA, especially within the student government’s executive branch.
Currently, Lara is no longer part of UPUA, but he said he still has the goal of partnering with it and working toward many other improvements within the community.
Another former Latino Caucus representative, Evelyn Juanacio, decided to join UPUA after being involved in the Student Government Association at Penn State Altoona, where she served as the vice president.
“I really enjoyed getting that leadership role where I got to be influential and leave a positive impact behind,” Juanacio (senior-political science) said. “So, I wanted to do something similar when it came to the University Park campus.”
According to Juanacio, it wasn’t until she attended “Latinx Orientation” through the caucus that she decided to apply for a position to get involved with both the Latino community and the student government.
Juanacio described coming to University Park from Altoona as “an adjustment” because of the new people and bigger campus.
She said her main focus while being a representative was in the Justice and Equity Committee as well, only serving as a Latino Caucus representative for one semester.
One bill she attempted to push through UPUA was funding for an event called “Noche en México,” though the event was ultimately canceled.
Among many issues, Juanacio said she would like to see a change in professors to understand the difficulty of adjusting to college when coming from multicultural backgrounds — especially for first-generation students.
“I feel like the relationships that students have with professors are one of the most fundamental relationships,” Juanacio said. “If they can work with diverse communities and learn from marginalized backgrounds, then I feel like students would have an easier time transitioning.”
Juanacio said she enjoyed the position and was grateful for the first person elected for this position and former president of the Latino Caucus, alumna Heidy Canales.
“So, although this position is here and it’s relevant, I think it’s still important to have that voice and that representation, especially when it comes from minorities within student government,” Juanacio said.
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UPUA President Najee Rodriguez became the first person of color to be elected president, also becoming a representative for the Latino community.
“I’ve always been interested in being able to change the power dynamics in student government and, ultimately, in the university itself,” Rodriguez (senior-national security and history) said.
Rodriguez said for a long time, there was a lack of noticeable representation of minorities in different spaces at Penn State, which by default means that there were many “predominantly white spaces.”
“I think that a lot of the energy has been focused on changing the paradigm of what issues are put at the forefront and how advocacy operates,” Rodriguez said.
In order to do so, Rodriguez said he “tuned” into his own identity and the struggles he faces as well as trends and statistics in higher education, specifically with the Latino community — something he’s been trying to do for the past three years as part of UPUA.
Rodriguez described navigating student government or entry to other organizations as “hard” and, to some, “intimidating.”
“Not a lot of people within the community are able to spend the time on doing these other things because we’re working or trying to pay our way through education or trying to do all these other things,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said despite the amount of change that needs to be done, UPUA has been advancing considerably, with the founding of its newest committee on Justice and Equity — one of the founders being Rodriguez.
“We’re really trying to broaden and diversify because that’s what’s in the best interest of students,” Rodriguez said. “And we want to make sure that student government can be as accessible as possible, especially now to members of my own community, hoping that helps bridge the gap.”
In recent years, UPUA passed an amendment that allowed for an extra seat for the Latino Caucus, which, according to Rodriguez, will help begin to gradually withdraw the traditional view and interpretation of UPUA being a “predominately white organization.”
“This is something that I think is going to bolster the allyship and support that community group representatives like within their student government,” Rodriguez said.
Alongside a lack of greater representation for Latinos, community group seats have been in existence now for four years, a fact Rodriguez said he still finds hard to believe.
“I think…that with the incorporation and integration of these seats, and of course, greater representation within student government as a whole, there’s a greater integration of advocacy efforts,” Rodriguez said.
Now, organizations like Latino Caucus have representation within their student government, which, according to Rodriguez, allows every stakeholder and every student to finally be a part of the conversation.
Rodriguez described many extracurricular spaces on campus as not welcoming for people of color due to the lack of representation.
“It’s hard to be the only person of color in a room, maybe pitching or advocating for something that’s personal or important to your identity and your community, but it’s not a comprehensively understood concept by others,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said one of the keys behind allyship on campus is an overarching university investment to increase recruitment of people of color and get them involved, despite potential difficulties and loneliness.
“For me, it just felt like no one cared about the issues that matter to me or my community efforts,” Rodriguez said. “It was always an uphill battle navigating these spaces, and it’s exhausting.”
Rodriguez described his philosophy while he’s been involved in UPUA as: “If you want to change something, then you have to do it.”
“Statistically… our communities are less likely to be able to afford college or even to be able to graduate,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s when it becomes a bigger issue.”
Rodriguez said unless that issue is fixed, it will become even harder to increase representation and student life within the clubs and organizations, following his two-pronged approach to fix those issues.
“But I think that we also need allies,” Rodriguez said, “people who are actually there to support us and there to fight for us to be in the room and make us feel included and valued as a member of an organization.”
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