Hispanic Photo

Conexión Américas Executive Director Juliana Ospina Cano speaks during a National Hispanic Heritage Month program held Thursday at Cumberland University.

Cumberland University recognized National Hispanic Heritage Month on Thursday with “It’s Time to Rise Together: Celebrating Hispanic Voices,” the last in a series of diversity events held this semester.

Guest speaker Juliana Ospina Cano, the executive director of Conexión Américas, headlined the discussion. The Nashville-based nonprofit focuses on creating opportunities for the Hispanic population and has recently provided meals and other services to families struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I moved to the U.S. when I was 15, and yes, even though I come from Colombia, and yes, it’s a rich country, I got here to Atlanta, to Georgia, at a time when immigrants were not welcome,” she said. “At the time, the rhetoric in my school district was — here they come again, here they are.”

Ospina Cano noted that many Hispanics lead parallel lives — speaking Spanish and embracing their culture in their homes and communities, but consciously blending in with the general public.

“When I lived in (Washington) D.C., you always had to make sure that you dress all in black, that you present yourself with the best language,” she said. “When I got into my master’s programs at Johns Hopkins University … I remember thinking, do I belong here? Is it OK if I speak Spanish?”

Through her work with Conexión Américas, Ospina Cano hopes to help other immigrants and Hispanics avoid those feelings of self-doubt. She said professors and others in positions of leadership can play a key role in that effort.

One of the ways CU is contributing is through Equal Chance for Education scholarships. The university has several DACA recipients among its student body, and ECE gives them a pathway to higher education.

“This is a scholarship opportunity that is given for students who perhaps fall under the DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or people who are unable to get or obtain financial aid due to their undocumented status,” CU student and ECE recipient Allie Garcia said. “That’s a big part of our community here.”

Garcia credits ECE founder and CU Board of Trust member Dr. Michael Spalding with encouraging her to pursue higher education when she felt incapable of it.

“My undocumented status kind of deterred me and led me to believe that I couldn’t go to college,” Allie Garcia said. “Ultimately, now I’m here, I’m SGA president and I get to be with all these beautiful people, so I feel very blessed.”

Members of CU’s Hispanic community have also found homes in student organizations like Sanctuary For All and FUTURO.

“We are here to make change and to also let students speak their truth and their voices,” SFA member Tania Crescencio said. “Even though we’re small and we’re new, we have done so much not just for our campus but for our community.”

One of the experiences Crescencio found most impactful was traveling to Nashville with SFA last year to feed the homeless population. The organization also recently hosted an equality parade alongside several other student organizations, including FUTURO.

“I decided to join FUTURO my freshman year of college,” Tania Zalazar said. “When I first got here, I was surrounded by people who were leaders here on campus, and I feel like that really empowered me to get my voice out there. I was really always just the quiet, shy person in the back of the classroom. I wasn’t really the type of person to go out and speak and let my voice be heard, so I feel like FUTURO has definitely helped shape the characteristics that I am now building as a leader.”

CU’s opportunities for DACA recipients and students from various backgrounds are part of its administration’s vision for a more inclusive community.

“Our administration here at Cumberland has shown increasing respect for and support for honoring the diverse voices of our campus community,” Dean Eric Cummings said. “I’m very encouraged by that, and I see it as an upward and positive trend that’s going to continue. I’m very proud to be a part of that.”

Cummings said having students lead the way through organizations like the Anti-Racial Movement is an important part of that trend. Ospina Caso echoed that, encouraging the students in attendance not to suppress themselves as they continue through life.

“It’s OK to speak Spanish at home, it’s OK to take care of our parents, but it’s also OK to go out into the world and represent your community and your heritage with love and with pride,” she said. “Wear your colors. You don’t have to wear all black or wear your suit when you’re going to be seen. Use your language, your voice, your stories. Be yourself, and remember: reach out.”

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