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Group aims to provide mentorship, place to connect for Latino students

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The transition from high school to college can be stressful for some students, but an Ohio State center seeks to ease that feeling for some Latino Buckeyes.

LASER, Latino and Latin American Space for Enrichment and Research, is a center that pairs undergraduate mentors with local high school students. It also provides space for bringing together members of the OSU community through sponsoring activities and events that study Latinos. The center ­— which is located in Hale Hall ­— is also hosting events this month to commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month.

According to LASER’s website, the Latino population in Ohio has increased more than 63 percent from 2000-12. LASER aims to ensure those students “become college ready, succeed once in college and become professionals actively shaping tomorrow,” the website says.

“Back in 2009, I realized that we needed to establish something at OSU that would be able to basically create a net to catch the growing population of Latino students in the elementary, middle and high schools that were going to be going through the links to come to college,” said Frederick Aldama, founder and director of LASER.

Mentors are selected through an online application process that requests information including their major, interests and if they are bilingual.

Since its development, the center has seen progress in the number of students affected by its work, Aldama said.

“We started with two students and one mentor and now we have over 80 Latino high school scholars and over 100 trained undergraduates working with them,” Aldama said. “This year alone, all of the kids that have been in the program with us that have been in 12th grade and have applied to colleges, including OSU, have gotten in.”

LASER also hosts guest speakers and holds events geared toward building knowledge about Latinos.

With Hispanic Heritage Month spanning Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, the center is celebrating by bringing in a Mexican-American scholar, said Elena Costello, program coordinator for LASER.

“We have a keynote speaker, Ilan Stavans, who writes a lot about Jewish Latino experience,” Costello said.

Currently, Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The event is set to be held Oct. 14 with the annual Latino Buckeye dinner to follow. The event is open to all students, but attendees must register beforehand for the dinner.

In the past, the center brought in writer Alvaro Rodriguez. It also hosted un noche de pan dulce.  It was designed to have Latino families come learn about options for studying at OSU and other universities, she said.

Following Hispanic Heritage Month, LASER staff will take over training its mentors come December. The center currently brings in experts to train them twice a year. A Columbus City Council member sponsored a resolution Sept. 22 that would recognize Hispanic Heritage Month and would honor LASER for its “work to build an inclusive community,” according the council’s meeting highlights.

Despite any progress being made, LASER still has the same goal: to increase the number of Latino students attending college, retain them and make their experience a little easier, Aldama said.

“It’s one thing to open the door for Latinos to come to college, but it’s another thing to foster an environment that will allow them to not only survive but to thrive and grow,” Aldama said.

One mentor said she finds the program rewarding.

“It’s been great. I’ve really developed a close relationship with my mentee,” said Olivia Rojas, a third-year in economics and anthropology.

The most rewarding thing, she said, is leading her mentee. Rojas said she can help keep her mentee’s stress levels down through their weekly meetings.

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