By Shalicia Johnson & Jonathan Gramling

For many Latino and immigrant families, they are of limited means. Within their
limited economic means, the families give the children every opportunity to
pursue their American Dream, which almost always means pursuing academic
excellence all the way to higher education.

The parents work hard, often working 2-3 jobs to support their children and
impart on their children important values like hard work and bettering oneself
through education. While the parents may not have gone to high school or
college for that matter, they understand its importance and give their children
encouragement and support as they pursue their education.
In order for the children to make it through the gauntlet of challenges that
primary and secondary education may impose on their children, it’s important
for the children to be a part of an “extended academic family,” an organization
like Centro Hispano that gives or guides the children to the resources and
supports they need in order to achieve their academic American Dreams.

Centro Hispano works with students through their middle and high school years
and then through fundraising from individuals and corporations, provides them
with Bacas (Scholarships) to complete their academic journey.

“It goes along with our mission of being able to support the community through
multiple phases of their lives,” said Karen Menendez Coller, executive director
of Centro Hispano. “I think a lot of it is because there is only so much money
that we have right now. How can we get the most out of it? The kids who were
awarded on Saturday have all been with Centro for 4-7 years. The families are
very involved. It’s just a matter of making sure that it’s another piece to the
mission and the puzzle of what we are trying to do. Financially, I would love to
raise enough dollars so that we can open it up to every single young person
and have Centro programs in every single school so that it all aligns. What we
have right now is the best that we can do for our families.”

On November 30, about 125 people attended the BECAS Awards Luncheon at
the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Centro Hispano separated the awarding
of scholarships — which it has done since the early 1990s — from its annual banquet so that mor attention could be focused on the award recipients.

“Everyone brings family,” Coller said. “There is plenty of room. And it is very much a community event. Usually we like to give out three $2,500 scholarships and
then two $5,000 college scholarships for students who are enrolled. I’ve been pushing really hard and so every year, we’ve exceeded the last. This year we gave
our five $4,500 scholarships for students who are graduating from high school in our Centro programs and three $10,000 scholarships for college students. The goal
is to eventually be able to give out a couple of full rides. The nice thing is that the college kids get support until graduation. So for those who get selected, every year
they will get the same support and can count on it. And the high school recipients are eligible for the college awards once they are enrolled.”

For many of the children, they face a lot of isolation. They may be first generation in their family in terms of pursuing an education. They may be one of the few Latino
students striving for academic excellence in their school. And if they are undocumented, they may be cut off from traditional resources for students who exhibit
academic excellence.

“This year, we talked a little bit about how the kids are our hope for this community and we are all behind them including those who the land where that space is
built,” Coller emphasized. “There are so many challenges in this state. We just want to make sure that finances are not an obstacle. The nice thing about the luncheon
is that the young people get to sat a few words and it is clearly poignant. And the college award recipients who are a little more seasoned actually speak to their
peers. It’s pretty warm and meaningful. There is a lot of indigenous blood in our families. And we are connected with the resistance and the struggles of many people
in many communities of color. And so this is a real nice time of reflection, of putting it into context. Any time that I can bring these things to the university, I think it is
very important so that they see us.”

And just like any “family,” the older children are expected to help the younger children achieve.

“It’s a nice incentive for the students to stay engaged,” Coller said about the scholarships. “The one thing that we ask the college award winners is that they engage
in the community. They will either work at Centro or volunteer significantly. They are so connected. In the end, I really think that to thrive and achieve, if we can be at
their side, we are happy to do that.”

The BACAS Awards Luncheon is the nice culmination of the hard work and academic focus that the students have maintained for years. Together, with Centro
Hispano and other community resources, the students can take their academic game to the next level, in the warm, loving arms of their academic family.