Elon University’s SMART Mentorship Program Creates a Community for Hispanic and Latin American Students on Campus
Karen Cruz-Ruiz grew up surrounded by people of color at school. Her school system was majority and she had never known anything different. That is – until she comes to Elon.
Attending a predominantly white institution like Elon was a difficult transition for Cruz-Ruiz. But one thing that made the challenge a little easier was the sense of community she felt through the Odyssey program and through her SMART mentor, Joyce Llopis-Martell.
“She made me feel at home, she made me feel like I really belonged here,” said Cruz-Ruiz. “As if I could and would succeed, even though I didn’t necessarily see people who looked like me. “
The Student mentors advise emerging talent The program was established in 1994, as a key component of the Center for Race, Ethnicity & Diversity Education. Aiming to facilitate the transition of students of color to Elon, the program supports the specific needs of students who identify with the ALANAM community – which includes African American, Black, Latinx, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native American, Alaska Native and Multiracial students.
By pairing freshmen and transfer students with upper-class students, the SMART Mentorship Program also hopes to help students with their academic and social engagement throughout their time at Elon.
The SMART family
John Robinson-Miller, who is the deputy director of CREDE, said that when he thinks of the SMART mentoring program, he thinks of family.
“It’s really meant to be an opportunity for the early years and the first transfer [students] to have a very deep relationship with the people who lived it, ”said Robinson-Miller.
Robinson-Miller said that every student of color’s experience on a predominantly white campus is different, and the SMART curriculum takes that into account.
“I think everyone has their own place on how they understood their racial and ethnic identity, really all of their identity, even before… coming to Elon,” said Robinson-Miller. “I find that there are a lot of students who, even if you understand that you are part of the racially minority group or the world majority, you come to a place like Elon, mostly white, and you say to yourself, ‘Oh , that’s what it means.
The program itself uses a “house model” to explain the roles and responsibilities of faculty members, mentors and mentees. The mentor is the roof of the house, focusing on personal and professional development as well as community engagement. The mentee is the body of the house, focusing on professional development, community engagement, social well-being, and academic identity.
The program also focuses on connecting students with other resources on campus, from the Latinx Hispanic Union and Empress to the Black Student Union and the Gender and LGBTQIA + Center.
“Everything we do in SMART is about preparing them for the future,” said Robinson-Miller. “They learn to take up space because everything in this world tells them to shrink. They learn to connect with the community because once they leave Elon, they will have to learn how to connect with the community.
The SMART program community emphasizes intercultural competence. Cruz-Ruiz and Robinson-Miller both said it was crucial to help students understand their intersectional identities and find community on campus.
“As Hispanic individuals, individuals of color, we are very used to our communities being very united,” said Cruz-Ruiz. “Being able to then translate that into that community and feel like we have a tight-knit community helps us feel a lot more comfortable with who we are here.”
This year, the SMART Program partnered with Elon University Residence Life to bring programming to the Historic District. There are mentors placed within History specifically to help first year color transition students in residential spaces, in addition to the academic and social aspects.
For Robinson-Miller, the 2021-22 academic year is only his second year with the program, and he’s very excited to see what the program will look like in a more in-person space.
“I’m excited to be able to really continue and transform it in a way that fits the student of today, but still rests on the shoulders of those who came before him,” said Robinson-Miller.
Cruz-Ruiz, who now serves as a mentor in the SMART program, looks forward to other in-person events this year and will share the community within the program with his mentee.
“It’s just the feeling of connection, the feeling of being able to feel like we’re meant to be here,” said Cruz-Ruiz. “Because we really are. “