Latinx students sitting together outside with bookbags
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Latinx Student Association helps students feel at home

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Students
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

Some students get involved with campus organizations to explore new interests. Others search for familiarity and lasting bonds. Members of Pitt's Latinx Student Association (LSA) say the group provides all three.

"When you come to school, it's easy to feel left out and alone," says Julianna Menendez, LSA’s community engagement chair and a senior studying biological sciences on the pre-med track. She joined LSA last year after the former president, Ashley Brown (A&S ’22), noticed her in class and invited her to join.

"Up until that point, I hadn't met any other Latinx students," Menendez says. "I joined because I thought it'd be nice to be around a similar demographic and was hoping to find a community of people with shared cultural values."

And she did.

“You’re away from home but still have people to fall back on who, to a greater degree, understand you as a person because of your shared experiences. Shared cultural background builds those familial ties within friendships," she says.

A connection made through friends also brought Ana Larez, a sophomore studying psychology and English, and Juan Alvarez, a first-year engineer, to LSA. Although new to the group, they both say they’ve already felt its impact on their lives.

"As a new member of a club, there's always a trial period," says Larez, who remotely joined LSA last year. Despite the physical distance, "it felt so easy to become part of this club. Board members bring a familial atmosphere that is the foundation of LSA."

Born in Mexico and raised in Laredo, Texas, where there is a substantial Latinx and Hispanic population, Alvarez says moving to Pennsylvania took a lot of adjusting.

"Cultural groups like LSA are critical because they not only help promote the culture but also create a sense of community within the group," he says. "I feel at home."

The group’s 50-some active members host discussions featuring acclaimed Latinx authors and public speakers, as well as formals, resume workshops, game nights, fundraisers and other activities — many of which focus on topics key to the Latinx experience at Pitt. Past events include a general body meeting where members discussed what it’s like to be Latinx attending college as a minority and a panel discussion about intergenerational and migration trauma. LSA also supported a recent Center for Latin American Studies event that brought Rosalynne Montoya, a trans model, actor, advocate and content creator, to discuss legal names and the LGBTQIA+ experience. 

“The excitement for LSA was immediate," says Gina Ann Garcia, an associate professor in the School of Education and scholar of equity and justice in education. As the first LSA advisor, she recalls working with LSA founder Mark Novales (CBA ’20) to champion Latinx voices on campus and throughout the greater Pittsburgh area.

"People were hungry for that type of organization," she said. Garcia's research centers on the student experience in higher education, with a lens on students of color. "Students need to see people, staff and faculty that look like them and need spaces like LSA that ultimately lead to greater engagement and greater outcomes."

Michele Reid-Vazquez, an associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the current LSA advisor, notes that LSA is “imperative because Latinxs are underrepresented locally, regionally and nationally.”

“At Pitt, LSA provides an important cultural and social space for the growing Latinx student population, which has doubled since 2011, and a link to the emerging Latinx population in Pittsburgh, which has increased 100 percent since 2010,” Reid-Vazquez says.

Your chance to connect

This year marks the fourth University-wide observation of Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month (LHHM). Launching the effort at Pitt was an LSA initiative.

New this year is the first-ever Latinx Connect conference, held Oct. 14-16. The three-day virtual conference invites people, whether they identify as Latinx or not, to talk about the Latinx diaspora and its complexities and contemporary issues.

"When people feel they have open space to ask questions, they're more inclined to want to learn," says Menendez. "The panels will allow people to ask those questions freely and without judgment."

Latinx Connect panels will feature renowned scholars and activists, including Eduardo Chávez, the grandson of both the legendary civil rights activist César Chávez and Cuban revolutionary Max Lesnik. It will also explore topics like intersectional identities, education and immigration.

"Research shows the out-of-classroom experience is just as important as what's happening inside the classroom," says Garcia on the importance of LSA and programs like Latinx Connect. "These types of experiences will help them to grapple with who they are as people of color and or people with various ethnicities and or identities. These spaces tend to be where they can thrive, where they get to explore those identities."

LSA members celebrate the university’s recognition and participation of LHHM and the opportunity to festively engage with other Latinx and Hispanic organizations at different schools and throughout the city. However, membership with LSA enables a root part of themselves to flourish and provides safety and familiarity beyond Oct. 15.
“It is a [predominantly white institution], so everybody gets excited for LHHM because celebrating together as an organization, despite how far the diaspora is spread, is important to us,” says Menendez. “But people love the environment we have at LSA, and there’s a lot we want to do. We want to maintain our presence outwardly and loudly and make sure everybody is taken care of.”

— Kara Henderson