Success within Reach

You don’t have to go overseas to meet students from different countries. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, you can find students from all over the world, most of whom are Latino children of recent immigrants from numerous Spanish speaking countries. The International Student Counseling Office (ISCO) is the welcome center for all international students in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) whose primary language in the home is not English or who were not born in the U.S. The 2010 Census showed that the Latino population in Prince George’s County doubled over the past 10 years from 7% to 15%. In Prince George’s County, the Latino population is at 17%. As of 2010, there were 27,000 Latino students attending school in PGCPS. Some elementary schools and middle schools now have up to 80% Latino students. At least two high schools have over 50% Latino students.

ISCO works collaboratively with the county’s Department of School Counseling Services to support its mission of providing a comprehensive, developmental counseling program addressing the academic, career and personal/social development for all students. At the moment, six energetic bilingual professional school counselors staff ISCO, all of whom hold a Master’s degree in school counseling as well as teaching credentials. The counselors are also experts in evaluating high school transcripts from all over the world.

One of the most important and impressive events organized by ISCO is the annual Estudios Universitarios A Su Alcance. It was first held fifteen years ago as an evening event at a local high school. Workshops for parents and students were conducted on how to assist the parents and students in the pursuit of a post-secondary education. Over the years, the event has attracted more and more families. Estudios became such a community hit that the ISCO needed to accommodate the increasing number of participants, which had grown from 20 the first year to over 1,000 who attended last year. With the collaboration of the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), the event is now being held on the college campus. The program starts with a continental breakfast along with a live mariachi group. A motivational speaker is always chosen, and has included the first Latino Maryland State Senator, Victor Ramirez, and the first Latino County Councilman, William Campos, both alumni of Prince George’s County Public Schools. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, Maryland State Delegate, and Samuel Gálvez, a radio personality from Radio América (a local Spanish speaking radio station) have also spoken at Estudios. Carlos Acosta, professor of law at American University, as well as a lawyer for the Department of Justice also addressed the families. Daniel Sarmiento, Director of the Hispanic Youth Institute, was last year’s guest speaker. Representatives from the PGCPS Board of Education and Central Offices have also welcomed the families. Last year, the school Superintendent, Dr. William Hite, and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Duane Arbogast, brought greetings to our families as well, and in Spanish!

The second phase of the program consists of separate college readiness workshops tailored to grades 6 to 12. The workshops include panels composed of PGCPS Latino high school students, Latino university students, and young Latino professionals who speak eloquently about the obstacles they have overcome to succeed academically and how their education has made a difference in their lives. The conference culminates with families attending a college and community agency fair where they meet with bilingual representatives from over 21 colleges and learn about services available from over 22 community agencies in the County. The fair is followed by campus tours provided by the University of Maryland Office of Undergraduate Admissions. It’s all totally free for the participants.

ISCO works very closely with the Latino students and the Latino community. The counselors collaborate with the local schools to present evening parent meetings for parents with students K-12. Topics include learning how to navigate the school system and teaching parents strategies for helping their children with homework. More serious topics such as how to handle bullying in schools and gang involvement are also covered.

High School evening workshops in Spanish, on Scholarships/Financial aid and “The Road To College” are offered in the high schools that have a large number of Latino students. The ISCO counselors also conduct group sessions called Newcomer Groups. These groups meet throughout the academic year and revolve around the students’ acculturation experiences and culture shock. Separation and re-unification of families is also discussed since it affects a large percentage of students who at some point have been separated from their parents.

ISCO also organizes large countywide school events such as the annual National Latino College Fair, high school field trips to Prince George’s Community College, and middle school students’ visits to the University of Maryland in College Park. Last year Latino students also participated in the first annual Latino Youth Forum organized by LATINO Magazine in conjunction with the Hispanic College Fund. Latino students from Prince George’s County were participants in the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Maryland Hispanic Youth Symposium, the National Hispanic Caucus and the annual Latino STEM conference sponsored by LATINO Magazine.

In keeping with PGCPS’s motto “Students Come First,” the International Student Counseling Office is an advocate that provides support to maximize student potential and academic achievement. In partnership with educators, parents or guardians and the community, ISCO insures that all students are prepared with knowledge and skills to become productive members of society.

Hector Aguiñiga is with the International Student Counseling Office in Prince George’s County Public Schools.