Going Deeper to Better SERVE Latino Students During COVID-19

Excelencia in Education
9 min readSep 23, 2021


by Julieta Rico and Deborah Santiago

Many Latino college students have persisted, despite being disproportionately negatively affected by COVID-19, with institutional support. This year, Excelencia in Education invited programs to share how their work was impacted by COVID-19 and how they adapted to better SERVE their Latino, and all, students. Of the programs that chose to reply, a consistent theme found was adapting and doubling down on efforts to prioritize Latino student success and well-being in six culturally responsive ways: 1) cariño (care), 2) comunidad (community), 3) familia (family), 4) flexibility, 5) direct outreach, and 6) support.

For more than 16 years, Excelencia in Education has identified and promoted evidence-based practices that accelerate Latino students’ success through Examples of Excelencia. Examples is the only national data-driven initiative to recognize programs at the associate, baccalaureate and graduate levels as well as community-based organizations with evidence of effectiveness in accelerating Latino student success. Of the 106 program profiles submitted this year, Excelencia staff met with staff from six programs to learn more about their efforts to SERVE their students.

Six Programs SERVING Latino Students

Each of the program representatives had an unwavering commitment to SERVE their students, especially during this challenging time. While this is a small sample of the programmatic efforts by programs and institutions, it provides some culturally relevant context and examples of how institutional effort can support Latino students.

Pasos Program

— El Paso Community College [El Paso, Texas]

The Pasos Program is dedicated to supporting the U.S./Mexico border community through family engagement, classroom equity, inclusion, and social justice while also focusing on the unique location, population, and stories of their students.

Cariño (Care): The Pasos program at El Paso Community College described cariño (care) in classrooms as a critical component for both engaging their students and creating spaces to discuss the difficult experiences exacerbated by COVID-19 over the past year and a half. Cariño in the classroom is particularly important for Latino students as it incorporates the bilingual/bi-national culture of students through faculty members and staff creating a more inclusive environment for these students. Cariño is a sense of familial belonging to a community and a sense of support and safety which is fostered within families and friend groups. Cariño manifests in the classroom as faculty taking time to check in with students at the start of class and within families or friend groups it can manifest as making sure to send a text or call when getting home. When a program manifests cariño, they have the potential to change the outcomes of students.

Evidence of effectiveness: The Pasos program continued to do their Pre-COVID-19 intentional work, and understood, “a little bit of cariño can make a difference” (shared by Lucia Rodriguez, Program Coordinator, and Yasmín Rodríguez, Lead Faculty). Further, the Pasos Journal started before the onset of COVID-19 as a way to bring together students, faculty, and community members. This work shifted to a virtual format and continued to highlight their location, population, and stories through poems, artwork, and short stories. Pasos continued to deliver their original programmatic services but recognized that in order to truly engage and meet the student in this new context, more intentionality was going to be needed in order to SERVE their students. As evidence of effectiveness, while the cumulative completion rates at EPCC have decreased in the last year, due to the pandemic, the program shared that cumulative completion rates of Pasos students were higher than for non-Paso students from the Fall of 2017 (94% vs. 91%) to the Spring of 2020 (82% vs. 77%).

SHARE (Student, Health, Advocacy, Resource, & Engagement) Center

— Palo Alto College [San Antonio, Texas]

The SHARE Center offers students a centralized access point to academic peer coaching, career services, counseling services, and financial wellness services.

Comunidad (Community): The SHARE Center at Palo Alto College focuses on SERVING the whole student by providing academic support and basic needs (i.e. food, housing). The SHARE Center realized that in order for the students to succeed, the comunidad (community) as a whole must be supported and successful. Therefore, the Center conducted an environmental scan of the community and focus groups of students interacting with resources to better SERVE their Latino students and local surrounding community. The services and resources provided to students were in place before the onset of COVID-19, but after the pandemic began, the food pantry became a pop-up market where students and community members could drive through to receive canned goods and fresh vegetables. The SHARE Center team recognized the importance of not only prioritizing their students but also the surrounding San Antonio community because it is the community from which the students draw strength. Further, in leveraging the virtual platforms, the College invited experts in higher education (e.g. faculty & researchers) from across the country to engage with the SHARE staff in diverse topics (e.g. retention, student homelessness) to enhance the SHARE team’s understanding of their role in aiding student success. ​

Evidence of effectiveness: Latino students who use the SHARE Center resource services showed increased performance in their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), (e.g. retention, graduation, enrollment rates) compared to those who did not utilize those services. Course completion rates (i.e. the ratio of students who did not withdraw from a course) were slightly higher for Latino students who used advocacy services (93%) than those who did not (91%).

The Department of Dual Language & English Learners

— San Diego State University [San Diego, California]

The Department of Dual Language & English Learner Education (DLE) prepares students to become bilingual and cross-cultural teachers and administrators focusing on addressing the needs of ethnically and linguistically diverse students, families, and communities.

Familia (Family): With COVID-19 halting traditional in-person education, San Diego State’s Dual Language and English Learner Department (DLE) quickly shifted online. By reaching out to their students, they learned that their DLE familia (family) needed additional support. The DLE program participants are predominantly Latino (99%) and come from the local San Diego region and from across the state of California. DLE serves the transborder areas of Tijuana and Imperial County, therefore, serving a large population of binational/transborder students. Given the campus’ proximity to the United States-Mexico border, many of DLE’s students were barred from coming to the U.S. due to travel restrictions issued by the U.S.[1] Additionally, there were students who were separated from their families on the U.S. side, forcing them to stay in hotel rooms or on friends’ couches. These students, like so many across the nation and worldwide, felt disconnected from their communities, and this disconnect was exacerbated by the digital divide.[2] Concurrently, these students were navigating the turbulent climate of racial injustice present in cities across the U.S. and worldwide. All of this was intensified by COVID-19.

Evidence of effectiveness: Over the past three years, DLE has had the highest number of Latino student participants in a program compared to other departments in the College of Education. Even within a virtual setting, the department collectively reflected on how they could internally assess data collected through student surveys to implement change to their department’s mission to better SERVE their Latino students. The department’s chair, Dr. Margarita Machado-Casas, shares their advocacy for their students, “si no nos escuchan, necesitamos gritar” (if they don’t hear us, we need to scream). Due to the pandemic and the larger national systemic issues, the department pivoted how they aid Latino students by intentionally holding spaces for difficult conversations (e.g., systemic racism) and analyzing student feedback to implement change, all while making sure their students felt part of the DLE familia.

Academic Achievers Program (AAP), Center for Mexican American Studies

— University of Houston [Houston, Texas]

The Academic Achievers Program (AAP) aims to increase Latino student retention and graduation through scholarship, tutoring, mentoring, and leadership training.

Support: The Academic Achievers Program (AAP) supports and SERVES their Latino students by disseminating information, providing and creating space for students to study, and building community through volunteer work. At the start of the pandemic, the AAP adjusted how they SERVED their students through their transition to online learning. They aided the transition by disseminating resources about access to food, community-building activities, and available study spaces. They did this by unifying the program and community to provide technology to students in need, offering more access to counseling services, and giving food and scholarship resources. The program reached out to students to make sure the program knew how they were doing and in turn how the program could further aid them through this difficult time. Fely Aguilar, Director of AAP, shared that students engaged with their school community by meeting virtually, using the food bank service and volunteering there. The program shared that because their student population lives in multi-generational households, they offered spaces on campus (e.g. classrooms and common rooms) for students to utilize for important exams or interviews.

Evidence of effectiveness: These efforts allowed students to continue their studies without disruptions in a safe and quiet space and have helped AAP increase their Latino students’ GPAs and graduation rates. AAP cumulative GPA is 3.0 for Latino students compared to non-AAP Latino students’ 2.7 GPA. AAP Latino students graduate at a rate of 64% compared to 60% for non-AAP Latino students.

Office of Financial Aid for Student Success

— California State University Fullerton [Fullerton, California]

The Office of Financial Aid for Student Success: The purpose of the CDA/FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Outreach is to remove barriers and increase student access by providing financial aid education, resources, and intentional staff support.

Direct Outreach: The Office of Financial Aid SERVED their students during the pandemic by making sure their students’ voices were heard through direct outreach. As Jessica Barco, Director of the Office of Financial Aid, shared, their staff aimed to be “transformational and not transactional.” Barco and their team SERVED their students’ financial aid needs by using direct student outreach through social media accessibility. The team worked with cross-campus partners (e.g., academic departments, leadership) in order for students to be SERVED holistically. The main office phone line capacity increased by ten members as their call demand increased substantially. Students received direct emails and monthly newsletters from the Office of Financial Aid to keep them updated on changes and other opportunities for scholarship. Barco commenced going on Instagram Live every other Friday to discuss students’ questions and found that this instantaneous way of engaging students was beneficial. In the past year, the office was intentional in reaching out to students individually in order to adjust students’ FAFSA due to a change in their income status (e.g. loss of income, home, or loved one).

Evidence of effectiveness: Through meaningful outreach, the CSUF Office of Financial Aid saw a 40% increase in FAFSA income appeals from previous years. In addition, the Office of Financial Aid protected 548 students from being dropped from Spring 2021 courses by awarding $1,317,540 in institutional discretionary emergency grants. Of these students, 61% were Latino graduating seniors.

M.S. Business Program

University of Texas at San Antonio [San Antonio, Texas]

The Masters in Business (MSB) program is an 11-month cohort model program that prepares recent college graduates with the fundamental business knowledge and individualized career coaching to take their careers to the next level.

Flexibility: The MSB program focused on serving their students during these difficult times by continuing to foster community and extending flexibility. Danielle Gawronski, Assistant Director for Career Engagement, shared that faculty and staff made lectures, program activities, and events flexible for students to watch at their own time by recording lectures. Many of the students in the program with the onset of COVID-19 took on more work to support their families, therefore, the flexible lectures and fun online cohort building events aided in fostering community and success. The program saw the virtual platforms as an opportunity to be able to connect students with employers nationwide. The speakers were intentionally selected to represent their students’ interests and diverse backgrounds. For example, the program’s Corporate and Culture: LatinX lecture series targets the Latino student population by inviting a panel to speak on tips and advice about how to successfully navigate and blend students’ Latino culture into their professional work environment. In addition to caring for students’ basic needs, Gawronski and Dr. Daniel Davied, Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in Practice of Marketing, shared that student survey responses showed the flexible programming and direct virtual student contact allowed for the program to SERVE their students.

Evidence of effectiveness: Given these efforts, 93% of students in the program graduate. Of those students enrolled in the program, 84% graduate within one year, and 93% graduate within two years.


The programs Excelencia reached out to had a strong understanding of who they SERVE, even prior to the onset of COVID-19. They all doubled down on their efforts because of their dedication and passion to support their Latino students. This meant showing cariño (care) to students, building a comunidad (community), supporting students through direct outreach, and extending grace and flexibility to students, faculty, and staff.

Serving Latino students to accelerate their success includes meeting their academic (e.g. funding, technology access) AND basic needs (e.g. food, housing, mental health). These six programs may differ in contexts and missions, but they all share a common goal of wanting to better SERVE their students. They all recognized how in order to better SERVE their students they must be intentional, adaptable, and good listeners to truly learn what their students needed. By fostering their sense of comunidad y familia (community and family), programs ensured their students were holistically SERVED as they continued to pursue their higher education dreams despite the pandemic challenges they faced.

[1]U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Mexico. Travel Restriction–Fact Sheet. (June 21, 2021). https://mx.usembassy.gov/travel-restrictions-fact-sheet/#:~:text=The%20United%20States%20will%20temporarily,pm%20on%20August%2021%2C%202021

[2] Vogels, Emily. Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption. Pew Research Center. (June 22, 2021). https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/22/digital-divide-persists-even-as-americans-with-lower-incomes-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/



Excelencia in Education

Excelencia informs, leads, & accelerates Latino student success in higher education through research, evidence-based practices, and leadership.