By Lindsay Schluntz
When Alexis Perez ’21 transferred to UM from Bevel State Community College last year to pursue a social work major, she admits that she felt a little lost at first. “I attended new student orientation all by myself and really didn’t know what I was doing.”
This experience isn’t unique to Perez. She went on to explain that most Hispanic students, like her, are also first-generation high school graduates and first-generation college students. It can be a daunting task for these students and their families to take that step toward their future without knowing what to expect.
Helping the Hopeful
Perez found the University faculty and staff to be readily valuable resources in helping her navigate her first year at UM. However, she wondered if there was more that could be done to help pave the way forward for other Hispanic and Latino students, as well.
“In talking with Carolyn Jones and Tiffany Bunt in the Alumni Affairs office where I am a student worker, I learned that in the ’60s there was a Hispanic Society at Montevallo. Out of curiosity, I did some research and discovered it was mainly an academics-based club for Spanish majors and minors,” she continued. “And although a Minority Student Union exists here at the University, now, and is very supportive, I felt each minority group faces their own struggles.”
So Perez, along with her roommate and Alpha Gamma Delta sorority sister, Lizeth Ramirez, began the process of creating the Hispanic Student Organization, which launched at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. They determined HSO would be established as a safe place for Hispanic and non-Hispanic students and UM graduate students to connect, to learn about the Latino and Hispanic culture and to get involved on campus.
Investing in Being Involved
As a new student organization, the first goal for incoming student members is to get them engaged on campus. Both Perez and Lizeth are highly involved with campus life themselves and have the desire to share their culture and see more diversity in organizations.
“We are both members of Alpha Gamma Delta. I hold a leadership position with the Baptist Campus Ministry (BCM) and I work with the International Student Organization, social work club, TRIO and College Night,” she listed. “Being involved is the best way to make connections at the University.”
For this reason, HSO is not designed solely for athletes or only for academic study. Rather, it’s a diverse mix of students from across campus life.
“We don’t want to do just one thing. We’ll do community service, social activities and cultural events. And we hope to offer scholarships and work with Admissions to go into the area schools to talk to the Hispanic population about the University and the importance of the pursuit of higher education,” she said.
Seeking to Serve the Community
During Fall Preview Day 2019, the HSO student founders capitalized on the opportunity to talk to potential new UM students and their parents about these goals.
“We especially wanted to get the parents involved along with their students. We understand their unique needs and are able to tell them, in English and in Spanish, that they and their students are safe on this campus. We can explain to them what their child is going through and what they are doing in order to further their future and their career.”
The Hispanic community is growing at the University. It is also a significant portion of the population in the city of Montevallo, making up approximately 30 percent of the community’s population.
“HSO is striving to be a voice telling Hispanic students that they can get an education,” she said. “We all have different backgrounds and different stories, and this is where we can make our mark in education and get a career.”
Leveraging the Power Sharing a Story
This idea of everyone having their own stories to share resonates with Perez.
“I had a rough childhood. Growing up, I didn’t have much and a social worker was needed for my family from time to time to help,” she recalled. “She was always so kind and that made such a difference for me.”
This difficult piece of her personal story is what helped inspire Perez to pursue a role in social work. She is moved by the idea of someday being able to look back on her career’s work and see that she made a difference in at least one client’s life.
“I love helping people. That’s what drives me. No matter where my social work journey takes me, I just want to be able to help people — especially children — who think they can’t do it or won’t make it in life,” she said. “I want them to constantly hear that they are going to make it, that they can… I mean, look where I am today!”
After she is placed in an internship in the field and graduates from UM, Perez plans to go on to graduate school to attain her master’s in social work or counseling. Perez acknowledges that a social work degree will equip her to make a very intentional impact on the lives of others. But she encourages others to be just as purposeful in their day-to-day interactions with those around them, “We can all be doing something, like making that call to check in or just showing simple acts of kindness.”