Student Support for WP’s Latinx Community Thrives with Weekly Dose of Café con Leche

What started as a way to bring William Paterson University’s Latinx community together in an open, welcoming space has since evolved into a glowing example of how to holistically support college students—especially those students from diverse backgrounds.

The success of WP’s weekly Café con Leche program was just spotlighted in Ed Prep Matters—a journal produced by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).

Thanks to an article penned by David Fuentes, WP associate professor of teacher education, and Johanna Torres, WP director of student enrollment services, educators across the nation are now looking to WP and the Café con Leche model as a way to reimagine conventional ways of helping students on their journey to a college degree.

Created by Associate Vice President for Campus Life Francisco Diaz and Associate Director of Campus Activities, Service and Leadership Maribel Rodriguez, Café con Leche debuted on campus in fall 2018 as a pilot program—“afternoon gatherings to bring together Latinx students, faculty and staff to socialize, address various questions and establish a welcome space for us to engage in where English, Spanish, and of course ‘Spanglish’ could be spoken freely and without judgement,” Diaz explains.

In a casual group setting, peppered with a cultural comfort base, students started coming to Café con Leche meetings with plenty of questions and concerns for faculty and staff in attendance, thereby shaping meeting agendas and creating a very influential student support resource on campus.

“We discuss topics impacting the Hispanic/Latino/Latina/Latinx communities as well as have workshops on wellness, career advisement, financial literacy, leadership development opportunities, civic engagement, campus resources, networking, and academic development,” Rodriguez says.

“We provide ways for students to navigate William Paterson University.”

Today, almost 20 Latinx faculty and staff from all sectors on campus regularly contribute to Café con Leche meetings, which tend to attract about 20 student participants each week. Non-Latinx employees often join meetings to share information from their respective departments, and non-Latinx students often drop in after hearing about the group from others on campus.

Everyone is welcome, Diaz stresses.

Cafe con Leche has made me feel comfortable speaking up on issues that I feel like need to be addressed or personal information that can potentially help me grow in a professional setting,” says Mikaela Gongora ’21. “I continue to take part because it has given me a voice to speak up as a Latina Woman in a place where our voices are usually shut down.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group transitioned to meeting virtually, via Zoom, last spring.

Since then, Café con Leche meetings have become all the more meaningful to both the students and campus employees who attend, explain Fuentes and Torres in their newly published journal article. Both are regular attendees.

“What was established as a celebratory group quickly morphed into a lifesaving, therapy space for us to hear from and listen to students about their trials and tribulations,” they write.

Often, in higher education, “it’s on students to come to us,” Fuentes further explains in conversation. “They have to find the information, time and courage to meet with different faculty and staff in their offices to ask questions, surrounded by other faculty and staff, in a more formal one-on-one environment that can feel intimidating.”

Café con Leche turns the tables on that model, creating an “intersection of student engagement and university support services,” Fuentes and Torres write. “By bringing the offices to the spaces that were already populated by students, we closed the gap between administrative support and student need.”

Beyond traditional support, though, Café con Leche provides a personal support, one wherein Latinx members of the WP community feel they can be their true selves.

“There are a lot of reasons I take part in Café con Leche but mainly because I feel it’s a safe space for me. Seeing other students and staff there who are first-gen students like me makes me feel like I have a home on campus,” says student Bryan Francisco ‘21.

Employees who regularly attend Café con Leche meetings have become a family of madrinas and padrinos for Latinx students—in other words, their godparents: persons who quite often take on the role of mentors and support systems in Latinx cultures.

“All of our madrinas y padrinos make this environment a safe and enjoyable space for us to come together and make our ideas heard,” Gongora says. “It’s refreshing to know that there are people here at William Paterson University who actually take our feelings into consideration and really want to make a difference in our lives.”

“We serve as mentors and role models for our students to demonstrate the diverse possibilities of what success could look like, and are invested in increasing retention and degree attainment for the Latinx student population,” Rodriguez adds.

In so doing, Café con Leche has taught students to embrace their heritage.

“One important thing I’ve learned is to always be proud of where you came from and don’t forget your roots. They shaped you to be who you are today,” Francisco says.

Want to join a Café con Leche meeting? Find the group on Zoom every Wednesday at 3:30.
Meeting ID: 96781084417
Password: 710061