Hermanitas brings nearly 100 young Latina women to campus

Randi Dofat

MANA, a national Latina organization, hosted the Hermanitas Conference in Washburn A/B for young Latina high-school and middle-school students to inspire them pursue higher education, engage with their community and take pride in their heritage.

Friday, March 30, Latina girls from all over the Topeka community had the opportunity to talk to an array of different men and women with various occupations. This portion of the event was made into a game called Speed Chat.

Many of the young women attending the conference had never been to a college campus before. The conference provides Washburn and MANA the opportunity to join efforts to help young people create goals and learn how to fulfill them.

“It is a really powerful event and it has been going on for 10 years,” said Andreana Albot, the President of MANA de Topeka. “Our Mayor has been working on this with Kim Morse, who is a professor from Washburn. This is a very energy-filled event, and MANA de Topeka is really happy to be a part of this. We have our national representation here too and I think [it’s] really important that local and national are supporting the organization and supporting Washburn and what’s going on with these girls.”

A three-year study at Harvard showed that young Latina girls were not graduating high school at an alarming rate. Because of this, MANA national created the first Latina mentorship program in the nation.

Michelle De La Isla, Topeka’s mayor, decided to bring the program to Topeka. However, she and her team had trouble forming one-point contacts with the girls.

“With Dr. Morse’s expertise with the university and having the access to campus, we thought about using the counselors and bringing the girls over to Washburn’s campus,” De La Isla said. “At that point, the first conference was a Big Dream gathering. We stole something that was happening in Topeka and we had panels all over the walls so that the girls could talk about what their dreams were. We were asking them: ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to be? Where do you want to go? What are your dreams?’”

However, De La Isla was disappointed in what the girls had to say. Most of the girls answered with goals of saying in school, having kids, being a mom, or traveling within the United States.

The program thought the best way to fix this issue was to engage these young women with professionals in the community so that they could know what jobs are out there. The goal was to give the girls a concrete reason to go to college.

“One night, Dr. Morse and I sat down and thought: ‘What if we made a game? Like the game of Life?’” De Isla said.

“In came the idea of developing a game that is interactive for the girls, so the girls literally have a game called The Girl’s Journey that we developed, and it’s almost like the game of Life, not quiet … So, there’s all these elements and now the whole conference is interactive.”

MANA is the oldest and largest Hispanic women’s organization in the country. It has a chapter affiliate network that spans all over the United States, and Topeka is one of its thriving chapters.

The program focuses on leadership development, community service, and advocacy for Latinas. Categories include education, opportunities for women and anything in the public sphere relating to Latinas and their families.

“We want to make sure we are the Latina voice in the conversation in Washington D.C.,” said Amanda L. Hinojosa, the CEO of MANA. “My job in Washington is to be that national advocate for the organization and to draw in information from our communities nationwide that are serving women and girls on the ground. Last year, we just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the national program created for Latinas by Latinas.”

A Harvard study tested different parts of the country to see how the MANA program was being administered and impacting girls.

Over the course of the study, participants were surveyed across the country. Results came back showing that only one girl dropped out and only one became pregnant before graduating high school.

“For us, that was the first time that we had actual evidence, other than anecdotal evidence, saying that mentoring works.” Hinojosa said.

Although the program is focused on Latinas and their communities, MANA is open to anyone.

“We welcome anyone,” said Hinojosa. “We have boys in the program in different parts of the country. One of our chapters in Albuquerque actually has a transgender student. We really are for everyone and we do want to support everyone because we all are going in the same direction ultimately. We all want what’s best for our kids, we want to make sure that they’re educated, we want to make sure that they have career opportunities and have goals in life.”

To De La Isla, having a mentor is not just somebody saying, “You can do it.” It’s people telling these children that they have a story, that it’s been hard, and to just keep going because someone has their back.

“The coolest thing is doing it at Washburn because then the girls can go ahead and say, ‘Oh, I want to be this, how can I?’ At Washburn you can,” De La Isla said.