Adriana Cervantes remembers feeling uneasy about her accent while participating as a high school student in Fort Hays State University’s Hispanic College Institute back in 2016.
FHSU student volunteers helped her overcome her self-consciousness. Now a sophomore at Fort Hays State, Cervantes served as a student volunteer for this summer’s HCI. She provided similar support to participants in the program that is one of a kind in Kansas and one of only a few in the nation.
Cervantes, a double major from Shawnee, wanted to give back as a student “Tiger Team leader,” guiding a group of Hispanic students at this year’s HCI.
“I wanted to help other students who are in the same situation as I was and to tell them that everything is going to be OK, everything is going to be fine,” Cervantes said. “I understand them. I was in their shoes.”
Since the inaugural HCI at Fort Hays State in 2016, Hispanic sophomores and juniors in high school spend three-and-a-half days on campus in June learning about college life.
Cervantes can look back now at how even after her high school graduation she still was not sure if she could succeed in college. She credits her HCI experience in contributing to her confidence to attend college and is glad she chose Fort Hays State.
“Last year, I thought I wasn’t college material,” said Cervantes, who will be a sophomore at FHSU this fall. “HCI helped me. I really fell in love with the campus and the faculty members. I’m really happy with the decision, and right now, I have really good grades.”
Cervantes and her family immigrated to the Kansas City area from Mexico five years ago, and she attended HCI two years. HCI student leaders helped Cervantes think differently about her accent.
“They really helped me open my mind, not be embarrassed about my accent,” Cervantes said. “They helped me see that being Hispanic is fine.”
HCI is just one example of how Fort Hays State cares about education and opportunity.
“What I love about the DNA of Fort Hays State University is that we provide the access, give students the opportunity at an affordable cost,” said Dr. Joey Linn, vice president for student affairs. “I think Fort Hays State is perfectly poised for a program like this to let students know that there is an institution here that truly cares about them.”
Cervantes came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant as a freshman in high school and did not know a word of English. She recalled how HCI helped her in the summers after her sophomore and junior years at Shawnee Mission North High School.
At HCI, Cervantes met other Hispanic high school students who also had an interest in attending college. She felt at home.
“I think it’s good that Fort Hays State makes Hispanic and Latino students feel welcome,” Cervantes said.
Alicia Santos, a first-time HCI participant this year, appreciated Fort Hays State hosting the program again this summer.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Santos, who will be a junior this fall at Dodge City High School. “Hispanic people need to come together and do this kind of thing. I think it’s good that they’re encouraging people to go to college and get that education that they need.”
Sixty-four high school sophomores and juniors from Kansas and Colorado at this year’s event learned about college life and how to get into college. The FHSU community – from President Tisa Mason to student volunteers who served as Tiger team leaders – made the high school Hispanic students feel like they were part of a “familia.”
“You can go to college and you can succeed,” Mason said at Saturday’s closing ceremony, adding she was a first-generation college graduate. “I just want to thank you for being here and continuing to believe in your dream and taking the chance to learn during this week. We’re going to believe in you, and your dreams will come true.”
Linn was all smiles while handing out scholarship money at the closing ceremony. FHSU awarded $9,500 in scholarships.
He said the final day is the most transformational, because parents who come to pick up their children marvel at the difference they see. He surprised the HCI students by announcing that one of the program’s sponsors had agreed to pay everyone’s application fees to Fort Hays State.
“It’s truly exciting to know that their dreams can come true,” Linn said. “I think Fort Hays State does a tremendous job of making these students understand it can be done. They just need that extra push, that extra support. That’s what Fort Hays State University does well.”
Skills and information gained at HCI are part of the success story. Among other activities, participants learn about college life, the application process and obtaining financial aid. They participated in a service project and had fun times, too, highlighted by a lip sync battle among “familias.”
Linn told the students that Fort Hays State wants to make sure they have the opportunity to succeed.
“You’re not just a student here,” Linn said. “We take great pride in making sure we help you get across the finish line.”
Xavier Hernandez, whose son Ezra participated in this year’s HCI, liked how FHSU helped get students to the starting line. Having buses pick up students from all across the region made a difference, he said, especially since they live in Overland Park.
“That’s initially why I jumped on it,” Xavier said of having his son participate. He added that he had never heard of FHSU, but the opportunity for his son to spend time on campus was a big selling point.
After the HCI experience, which included receiving a $500 scholarship during the week, the Hernandez family now has FHSU on its radar as a college choice.
“I thought it was a really cool thing to do, just give a college experience and surround ourselves around our culture,” said Ezra, who will be a senior this fall at Shawnee Mission North. “It’s been incredible.”
Cervantes has a younger brother, Jesus, who will be a sophomore in high school this fall. She said she is going to make sure he attends next summer’s HCI program.
“I’m sure he can go to college,” she said. “HCI will help him.”