Four public policy students at the University of Maryland created an organization called La Gente this semester to connect students of all majors interested in Latino policy issues impacting the community.

While the idea had been in their minds for a while, the group felt motivated to start this organization after hearing a guest speaker from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus discuss Latino identity and issues that the community faces, Diana Carrillo, one of the founders of La Gente, said.

“Being graduate students, I feel like we needed that unity, and really make sure that other students, either in undergrad or grad, in the future have this sense of presence and like their opinions are valid and valued at the school,” Carrillo, a public policy master’s student, said.

Bridget Ruiz Rivezzo, a public management master’s student, is another one of the founding members of the organization. Although she knows that there used to be some kind of student organization for Latino public policy students in the past, she said she hasn’t found any documentation of its existence.

In fall 2022, there were 49 students who identified as Hispanic out of a total of 558 undergraduate and graduate students in the public policy school, according to university data.

Senior public policy major Gizelle Alvarez said this university doesn’t accurately reflect the high Latino population in Prince George’s County and the state of Maryland. According to the county’s health department, about 21 percent of the county’s population identifies as Hispanic/Latino and almost 12 percent of the state does. At this university, approximately 9 percent of the student population identifies as Hispanic.

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“When I walk into a class and I don’t see anyone who looks like me, I kind of get a little discouraged,” Alvarez said. “If there were more people who maybe spoke my language, or who looked like me, who liked what I like, I feel like maybe I would have been a little more inclined to participate more in school.”

The organization’s faculty advisor, Apolonia Calderon, was a first-generation college student, and she said La Gente and similar organizations help guide students through the unfamiliarity while connecting them to those who have faced similar struggles.

“We get the degree, but we don’t know how to explore majors, how to explore opportunities,” the assistant professor of public policy added. “All of that is something that we have to find and figure out on our own when we get to campus.”

Although La Gente is based in the public policy school, the organization’s founders want it to be an inclusive space for all students with a passion for Latino policy, whether in healthcare, immigration or something else affecting their community. From professional networking events to cultural fairs, they said they want to provide a space for undergraduate and graduate students with similar interests to meet.

Luis Royo Romero, a doctoral student in the teaching and learning, policy and leadership department, is not a public policy student but decided to get involved with La Gente in order to find a sense of community at the university, expand his network and extend his interests beyond his studies.

One of the things that drove Royo Romero to this organization specifically was the fact that it had many graduate student founders, since he thinks that many other organizations tend to be more undergraduate-oriented and don’t meet the needs of graduate students.

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One issue that Alvarez is passionate about is closing the achievement gap for students of color in the county and state. Recent state test results showed that those who are economically disadvantaged are still trailing behind wealthier students in recovering from learning loss issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Washington Post.

“We’re really looking to use this as a forum and to kind of bring all these individual students, that kind of maybe feel out there on an island, together and see how we can pull everybody together and create a space for these conversations,” Ruiz Rivezzo said.

One of the reasons they chose the name, La Gente, which is Spanish for “the people,” was to encompass the whole diverse community. Ruiz Rivezzo said that this name speaks to the “familial nature” that she finds within her community.

In their efforts to be inclusive and reach a wider audience, the organization is also branching out to work with other Latino groups on the campus and organizations that cover other marginalized communities. Alvarez, who is developing social media for La Gente, also wants to build connections with Latino university alumni and local and state politicians.

Ruiz Rivezzo said this organization is meant to bring the university community together to have vital conversations about Latino underrepresentation in political leadership and policy considerations.

“I want this to become a space and place where we can have students see themselves reflected across different venues of change and opportunity,” Calderon said. “Often, if we don’t see it, we don’t think it’s possible.”