Helping First-Generation Latino Students Get into College

Backstory: Moved to the Bronx from Puerto Rico in 1973

Education: BA and master's of public administration from Pace University

Profession: Founder and executive director, Latino U College Access

Vision: Level the playing field for first-generation Latinos via higher ed

Shirley Acevedo Buontempo was 10 when she arrived in New York from Puerto Rico, unable to speak English. "It was sink or swim," she says. She and her brother were finally joining their mother, who had been working in various office jobs for three years. A fast learner, Buontempo ultimately became the first in her family to go to college. In 2012, after a career in marketing, she founded Latino U to give first-generation Hispanic students equal access to higher education. The tiny staff and hundreds of volunteers have helped more than 500 students prep for college and land $2 million in financial aid. "What drives many "first gens,"" she says, "is the desire to honor their families' sacrifice."

Her College Lessons

Fear not the sticker price. Don't write off a school because of the published price. Nearly $3 billion worth of Pell Grants are left unclaimed, says Buontempo. Even at higher incomes, she adds, "families can get federal loans, reduced Pells, institutional funding, or private scholarships. Everyone should fill out a FAFSA."

Widen your search. "Many Latino students think they can't afford to live away from home, so they limit their choices to commuter schools," she says. "Aid is available for dorm living."

Education really does pay. A college degree opens doors. "For me education is not just knowledge growth but financial growth, for you and generations to come."

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