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Mentoring Makes the Difference

The Latino Scholarship Program forms relationships as it provides needed financial aid; new SOL scholarship helps first undocumented student.

By Barbara Melendez
     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 20, 2015) – For people who recognize that it’s not enough to climb the ladder of success, but that it’s important to help those who are also on their way up, the Latino Scholarship Program offers the perfect arrangement.

The program’s slogan, “We must lift as we climb,” describes how it works. Much needed financial aid comes with a special connection to donors who serve as mentors. It’s what makes this scholarship program particularly special and so successful.

Richard Gonzmart with Mercedes Tatum and Alejandro Bolivar, recipients of the Columbia Restaurant Centenario Endowment.

Richard Gonzmart, patriarch of the legendary Tampa Bay Colombia Restaurant empire, has sponsored literally dozens of students, but then, wanting to give back runs in the family.

“My mother Adela helped start this program,” he said. “She would be so very proud to see what it has done for these young men and women whose lives have been changed forever.”

It didn’t take long for him to respond favorably and add his support.

“I immediately knew it was a great idea. Education is so vital, offering windows into a new life and opening the doors to that life. Without education, our options are much more limited,” he said. “I love hearing from students who have taken the scholarship and transformed their lives.

Julio Rodriguez '00 and Richard Gonzmart.

In fact, Gonzmart’s two Latino Scholarship endowments have provided $122,500 to 21 students. One of the first recipients of the scholarship program co-presented with Gonzmart at the 2015 Latino Scholarship awards.

“This young man graduated from college with a 4.0 in engineering and is a vice president at an aeronautical firm. His father had died in the fields as an agricultural worker. He told me that until he received the scholarship, hiscareer options were restricted to wondering which tomato or strawberry fields he would be working in. That’s what this program means to people.”

Despite Gonzmart’s hectic schedule, he tries to meet with his mentees as often as possible. This year he’s mentoring Mercedes Tatum and Alejandro Bolivar. Tatum’s scholarship is the Columbia Restaurant Centenario Award funded by a Helios Foundation Incentive Match award.

Gonzmart doesn’t take the guidance he received in life for granted.

“I had a family that always provided thatfor me. I realize not everyone has that opportunity.” He encourages other business leaders to do the same.

“We have to invest in our young people. It’s not a matter of it being affordable to help. We can’t afford not to help. These young people are the future.”

When it comes to family, Gonzmart has even sponsored more than one member of a family – three members of the Rodriguez family – two sisters and their brother. (See slide show above.)

A Promising Start

Dr. Brandon Rodriguez with his sponsor Donna Parrino.

When the program’s original director, Donna Parrino, started out with one student, one scholarship and one mentor, she was determined.

"We had been tracking national and local data and were alarmed at the high Latino high school drop-out rate and its consequence – low college participation rates,” she said. “Aware too that financial need was the prime factor in Latino high school graduates' low enrollment in higher education, we determined that we needed to help with monetary support.The data on Latino educational attainment was not well known at the time with media often reporting on White-Black issues only.As that began to change and more people realized the needs, it helped us in those early efforts to raise funds.

“The mentoring component was added as we realized that these students needed moral support as well in order to stay the course.”

Little did she know that 24 years later she would be celebrating what has become a popular tradition – the annual scholarship awards ceremony. Nor could she have imagined she would be standing beside one of the program’s eldest graduates, Dr. Brandon Rodriguez, a student she sponsored. He returned to USF as the eye surgeon he set out to be.

“The successes of the program have created a momentum that is ‘unstoppable,’” she said. “The program's heartfelt stories of students overcoming family hardships and achieving the American dream give it tremendous vitality and worthiness.Our alumni are the lynchpins to the program's next decades, and USF shines as the Great American Dream Factory.The future is ensured."

406 USF graduates later, the program announced its latest cohort of students Aug. 20 who are being supported with $225,000 in scholarship assistance.

Making Relevant Connections

Over the years, there has been an attempt to pair these high-achieving scholarship recipients with mentors who work in fields that match their career ambitions.

Norma Berrios, from the Class of ’04, wanted to be an accountant. Jose Valiente from the USF class of ’73, a member of the USF Foundation and chair of the Latin Community Advisory Council, sponsored her.

“Pairing her with an accounting firm was not an accident or coincidence, it was intentional,” said Patsy Sanchez, director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion and director of the Latino Scholarship Program for the last 14 years. “It is a very strategic move on our part. Students benefit not only from the financial support but also from professional advice, do’s and don’ts, shortcuts, networking opportunities in the field, etc. It’s a win-win!”

Sanchez is happy to report that Berrios gained a position with the firm Valiente Hernandez when she graduated.

Mentors don’t always have to be in the same profession.

Dr. Ray Ortiz is a dentist and the new president of the Sant’Yago Education Foundation provided a guiding light to a young Cuban American with high aspirations. Yosvel Blanco, hoped to follow in his mother’s footsteps, a dentist in Cuba who lost her battle with cancer before being able to join her family in the United States.

Now a dentist himself, he reminisced, “When Ifirst came to USF I was very nervous and excited at the same time. Nervous to be at a four- year institution for the first time, I didn't know many people that I could share notes with or study for exams. I was working full time to help support my family and I also wasn't sure if investing in such a lengthy career path was something that a recent immigrant should be even considering.”

For him, the Latino Scholarship “Interview and acceptance was a validation to all the work that I had done up until that point.… The fact that these highly educated individuals, Patsy Feliciano (Sanchez) and theKrewe of Sant'Yago Education Foundation, even considered me made me feel very honored.”

Mentoring Matters

He discovered that help with tuition was only one part of the equation.

“The Latino Scholarship program found ways to help me get involved in the school and the community as well. It gave me mentorship, it monitored my grades from the beginning to make sure I was staying on track with my goals. It helped me prepare for interviews and by knowing me very well they were able to send excellent recommendation letters to admission committees of different programs I applied to.”

Blanco observed, “I have met students from several other universities in Florida and other states and no other school has such a program to support not only Hispanics but minorities to achieve their dreams. We have many graduates already that are coming back to sponsor their own students like other sponsors did for them when they needed it. I have only been practicing for a couple of months but I can't wait to become a sponsor in the near future.”

Dr. Daniel Matta '13, Patsy Sanchez and Dr. Yosvel Blanco '11.

“Daniel Matta told us he wanted to be a doctor and in 2009 he made good on his word. He was accepted into USF’s School of Medicine. In 2013, he earned his MD and is currently completing his last year of residency at Bayfront Medical Center,” Sanchez said. “I was there with his family when he was matched with his first choice at USF Match Day. We are helping make dreams come true. Right before this year’s scholarship awards he shared with me he is ready to commit to funding a scholarship of his own in 2016.”

Describing himself as “an eager 18 year old kid who was full of dreams, ambitions, motivation, desire, hope, energy, and had lots of plans for my future,” Dr. Matta raves about the mentoring component. “It opened up so many doors. Introduced me to wonderful mentors with whom I am still in touch with today, exposed me to so many life lessons. Being part of the scholarship program was a way to always remain on track, stay motivated and inspired.”

Matta learned a great deal from his mentors.

“Some of the most important lessons have been that working hard, and being nice to people, really do pay off. I am a true testament to that. Yes, I have worked really hard, but if I had not been nice to people and had been blessed to have had so many mentors and people that liked me help me out and open doors for me, my work alone would not have gotten me where I am today.”

Of his mentors he observed, “they all shared their desire to help others, they were all very selfless, and they all believe in making the best out of the people they help. They believed in me even in those hard times when I doubted myself.”

He added, “I have grown not only as a professional, but also as a person and it has shown me the great difference that individuals can have on young people and the positive impact they can have. It has made me really want to be that kind of person as I continue to grow.”

Matta plans to be a model mentor himself.

“I will try to be a good resource for my students. I will be a good listener, and will encourage them when they feel down,” he said. “Those were all things my mentors were and did for me, and still are and do when I need it.”

A Mentoring Role for Organizations and Corporations

While there are individual donor/mentors, there are also organizations and companies involved with the Latino Scholarship Program.

The Helios Foundation has supported the highest number of students by sponsoring individual students and matching contributions so that other donors essentially amplify their generosity “two to one.” Nielsen, the global information and measurement giant, has provided $17,430 to four students since 2011. The Sant’Yago Education Foundation has sponsored a total of 62 students in the last 17 years.

Braulio Colón, the Helios Foundation’s vice president and program director for post secondary completion explained why supporting one student isn’t enough. “With so many talented and deserving students, it is impossible to pick one. We are proud to play a role in ensuring first generation, low-income minority students complete a post secondary degree and are prepared for the 21st century’s global workforce.”

He went on to say, “The Helios Education Foundation believes that education changes lives and strengthens communities. The USF Latino Scholarship program is a perfect example of how education can empower not only the student, but his or her family as well.”

Mentors keep coming back.

“We love the feedback we receive after each Awards Ceremony and we especially love the satisfaction in our donors/mentors faces during the annual mentor-graduate luncheon. They are so impressed with their students and pleased with the experience, they can’t wait to be assigned another student and do it all over again,” Sanchez said.

The luncheon and the annual scholarship awards ceremony remind everyone how much progress is being made and they also inspire everyone involved.

Matta said, “I went to the scholarship reception every year, and hearing the stories of so many other student's and the struggles so many of them had to overcome really made me realize if I worked hard I would be able to do what I had set out to do. It helped me stay determined to continue chasing my dreams.”

Members of the Status of Latinos (SOL) Committee, Chief Diversity Officer Jose Jernandez (5th from right), student leaders and first scholarship recipient Nancy Jaimes (holding certificate).

It’s no wonder the celebration outgrew its original home in Theatre I and now fills the School of Music Concert Hall.

“The personal connections are evident at the Scholarship Awards ceremony where there are as many kisses and hugs as there are handshakes,” said Sanchez.

Alumni donors and alumni scholars were encouraged to make this year’s celebration (see slide show above) more of a reunion than usual.

“I really wanted to emphasize the success of our graduates and bring back several of those to present the new cohort this year,” Sanchez said. “But I didn’t want them to come alone. I wanted them to join their donor/mentors who gave them a hand five, 10, 15 years ago. I wanted to send a message to the new scholars that anyone of them can achieve anything they set their minds to, and I wanted them to see it!”

Applications for the scholarship are due at the USF Foundation Scholarship Office in early spring. For more information, click here or contact Sanchez at

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563


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