MILWAUKEE — Marquette University junior Max Hernandez is a first generation college student.
"I remember all the work that people did in Dallas to help me get to where I am today, and I wanted to have that same impact to students here in Milwaukee," Hernandez said.
Hernandez joined Encuentros, a mentorship program between Marquette and Cristo Rey High School students. It connects mentors with kids who have similar backgrounds and helps them prepare for life after graduation. For instance, Hernandez will help Cristo Rey students fill out federal college financial aid forms this fall.
According to its website, there are 38 Cristo Rey schools across the country, and they primarily serve students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Hernandez graduated from a Cristo Rey school in his hometown, Dallas.
"I came here not knowing anyone, and I wanted to make sure that other students didn’t feel the same way," Hernandez said. "I wanted them to come, 'oh, I know someone there, I know there's someone I can trust.'"
Hernandez mentored four students and says three of them chose to follow him to Marquette this fall.
"I'm so proud of the students who are able to overcome all those barriers and come out, come through, get to college, and just kill it, just thrive on these campuses," said Jacki Black, Marquette's director for Hispanic Initiatives and Diversity and Inclusion Educational Programming.
Black started the program in 2017. Since then its grown from five pairs to 22 pairs in the 2020-2021 school year. She says Encuentros is one of several programs the University has with Cristo Rey.
"Cristo Rey does a great job, their college counseling program does an amazing job of really helping those students and their families navigate those processes," Black said. "We’re here as additional resources and support, additional connections. I think that's a really important thing to highlight, is the fact that the Encuentros program really is a way to create connection."
Marquette's website shows in the fall of 2020, 17 percent of first-year students are Hispanic or Latino, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent African American, 3 percent two or more races, 2 percent international, and two students of American Indian heritage.
"When we’re looking at all the inequities we see in our society, where students, where young people, who have big dreams, have so many barriers to get to where they want to go: being first-gen, being low income, not understanding the culture of a college campus," Black said. "It's incumbent upon us as institutions of higher ed to break down those barriers."
"One of my teachers, he would always like to say, 'Protect the dream,'" Hernandez said. "And that the whole point is to protect the dream, you're not only protecting your dream, but the dream of everyone who supported you."