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J.Smith
Philadelphia – When the Garcia family walked into the offices of La Casa Latina: Center for Hispanic Excellence on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, Monday, they were taking the first steps in a search that hundreds of thousands of other families are undertaking at this time of year.
Is this the right University for my son or daughter?
This particular Dominican family from Chicago, Ill. was fortunate in having a Philadelphia friend, Radio commentator Pedro Rodriguez, who steered them to La Casa Latina, where Director Johnny Irizarry has been a light in the window for Penn’s Latino students for nearly a decade.
A background that includes political and community activism, a teacher and member of the city’s School Reform Commission, and co-founder of some of Philadelphia’s prominent Latino arts and educational institutions, Johnny Irizarry brings not only organizational skills, but the type of broad experience and knowledge that make him a valued counselor and a touchstone for students.
Entering his Senior year at a Chicago-area high school, Nick Garcia has exemplary grades, high SAT scores, and is interested in studying finance at Wharton. Ramon Garcia, his father, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois, noted that despite Nick’s scoring more than 700 on the SAT-math, “his confidence is not commensurate with that score.”
“Everybody that comes here is apprehensive,” suggested Irizarry. “Every student fears, ‘do I fit in and am I up to the academic rigors.’ All students come in with such fears and most overcome them.”
“But Penn has an amazing amount of resources, academic resources for students, mentorship programs and freshman programs” designed for students who might be struggling,” said Irizarry. “It takes time to adjust,” to college level academics and a new environment.
“Everybody looks like they’ve got their act together, but they all go through the same thing,” added Irizarry.
“The important thing is to speak up. You shouldn’t drown by yourself. Penn has so many support systems,” he said, gesturing behind him to a wall of nearly two dozen banners indicating various Latino organizations at Penn.
While acknowledging “race and racism is a reality,” in any college, the Director of La Casa Latina says Penn has always “confronted it.” A growing awareness of a need to support Latino students in the 1990s led a coalition of Penn faculty and students to turn to then University President Judith Rodin, who responded with support and encouragement. And by September of 1999 “this center came about.”
Discussing Penn’s efforts at diversity, Irizarry cited the incoming 2,500 freshman class, of which the number of Latinos is between eight and nine percent. By comparison, Temple University, which has made efforts to attract Latinos has averaged only 3 to 4 percent of Latinos among its student population.
Although many Latino students come from Mexico, Chile, Peru and of Latin American countries, he says the majority are from across the U.S. The director also indicated that an active group of the University’s Dominican students are involved in an exchange initiative and “doing some amazing things.”
In praising the work of Penn’s admissions department, Irizarry described its holistic approach in evaluating applications to the Ivy League school founded by Ben Franklin in the late 1740s.
Besides SAT scores and academic record, Mr. Irizarry said, “they look at the essay and the community service of the student. They want to know why you want to come to Penn.”
“It’s not easy,” said Irizarry, referring to the admission process. “I wouldn’t want to do it; having to choose among thousands of great applicants.”
On the subject of choosing a major, Mr. Irizarry stressed that it’s often susceptible to change and that students should be open to that potential.
“There are parents who say, ‘you are going to be a doctor or a lawyer,’” but a student may be pulled in a different direction.
The President of St. John’s College in Maryland, Christopher Nelson echoed that view:
“Although a student may have a passion for one subject” when they enter college, says Mr. Nelson, “you may find something you never knew existed until you went to college.”
Mr. Irizarry agreed, saying, “Once you are here you have academic advisers, you have us here at Casa Latina,” he said. “So a lot of people are here to help you find where your talents lie.”
Noting that the Univ. of Penn is one of the more “social” of the Ivy League schools, Irizarry says the advisers also try to keep the students focused on their studies: “Philadelphia is a city that offers many distractions and we are right in the middle of the city. ”
In regards to Nick Garcia’s interest in business and finance, Irizarry specifically referred to the University’s Huntsman program, a dual major program in which students eventually earn a BS in Economics from Wharton and a BA in International Studies from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.
A popular program in an increasingly global economy, the program has attracted distinguished guest lectures from such figures as, Robert Zoelick, the President of the World Bank, and former Mexican Secretary of Finance Ernesto Cordero. “Everybody that’s in it, loves it,” said Irizarry.
According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), it’s imperative that our nation’s higher education institutions become more diverse to be in accord with “the nation’s founding principles of fairness and equal opportunity.”
Moreover, “our higher education institutions need to reflect the diversity in our changing nation.” And, with Latino s representing 16 percent of the population, it’s in “our national interest to invest in our future workforce.”
And studies consistently show that diversity “drives innovation and fosters creativity.”
Opened by Franklin to support the education of working-class Philadelphians, the Univ. of Penn of 2014 attracts students who have SAT Composite scores of from 1350 to 1540; and annual tuition costs $43,738 and total annual costs of more than $59,000.
Among the top ten research universities in the nation on every survey, Penn has more than 24,000 students and a little over 11,000 undergraduates.
Of the other northeastern colleges and universities, Princeton in nearby Princeton, NJ is comparable both academically and as to cost. Also a top research university, Princeton was similarly chartered in the mid 1740s, and has a faculty which boasts a dozen Nobel prize recipients. The SAT scores of its students are slightly higher than Penn’s, (1410 to 1590), but Princeton is also smaller, having only 5,203 undergraduates, and its annual costs are slightly less at $54,700.

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