Thanks to a new freshman program, Mary Baldwin is further diversifying its student offerings and targeting a growing segment of the population in 2011–12. The start of National Hispanic Heritage Month this week provides the perfect opportunity for students in the Latino Culture Gateway to make a big impression on campus, by hosting a series of events — from the scholarly to the cinematic to the culinary — that illuminate a vibrant culture.

Through mid-October, regularly scheduled campus events will connect the month-long celebration of heritage, including Founders Day on October 6. This year’s speaker is 2002 Mary Baldwin alumna Dr. Giannina Garces, who graduated with honors from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2009.

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The Latino Culture Gateway is designed to serve an increasing number of Hispanic students, as well as students interested in Latino heritage. It has become one of nine Leadership Gateways at the college, programs launched in 2009 that help first-year students ease into campus life.

“The Latino Culture Gateway is part of our efforts to recruit, enroll, and serve Latina students at Mary Baldwin University as well as to promote cross-cultural understanding among students of all ethnic backgrounds,” said Andrew Modlin, Mary Baldwin’s associate vice president of enrollment management.

The program addresses the rapid expansion of the Latino population, both in higher education and in communities across the country. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the Hispanic population now represents the second most populous ethnicity in America. About seven percent of students at Mary Baldwin are Latina, with roots in places such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. The gateway will provide support for those Latina students adapting to life on campus and for their families who may have difficulty connecting with college faculty and staff. Resources are provided for parents in both Spanish and English.

The program will also enhance understanding of the culture as participants will be encouraged to enroll in courses such as U.S. Latino Literature and Culture as well as Spanish language classes. Like all of Mary Baldwin’s gateways, the program will also serve as a general introduction to academic life at the college.

The establishment of the Latino Culture Gateway highlights two of Mary Baldwin’s distinctive strengths — freshman support and diversity. In 2009–10, 48 percent of the student population was comprised of minorities. Other gateways for first-years focus on leadership, careers, scholarship, international students, African-American culture, community service, wellness, and radical acceleration.

Martha Otegui Modlin, acting director of student life, and Peter Ruiz-Haas, assistant professor of chemistry, lead the Gateway. A full schedule of events for Hispanic Heritage Month can be found on the college’s website.