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Café Con Leche: Navigating Student Supports in a Financial Crisis at William Paterson University

Authors David A. Fuentes and Johanna Torres of William Paterson University, along with Andrew Morse of the University of Northern Iowa, will present a Learning Lab during the AACTE 2021 Annual Meeting, “Navigating Student Supports in a Financial Crisis” on Wednesday, February 24, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. In this article, Fuentes and Torres highlights their university’s efforts to support its diverse student population.

The unanticipated COVID-19 pandemic that hit in earnest of March of last year resulted in an abrupt disruption of teaching and learning at William Paterson University in northern New Jersey, as it did at institutions of higher education throughout the country. Students, faculty, and staff readied to quickly acclimate to our new learning ecology, one that was rife with technological challenges, but we were less prepared to understand the scope and breadth of the other hardships to come. Like other public universities located in the Mid-Atlantic region, March 2020 brought about changes at our institution that included the closure of our physical campus space, a loss of the varied and structured physical learning communities, and many of the physical opportunities that drove our community and kept us in touch with students and each other. Our offices designed around student support, civic engagement and campus life had to be re-imagined embracing the digital learning environments that faculty and students were creating. Adding to the dynamic change was a sense of urgency as our community, like others, began experiencing loss of a magnitude only experienced by previous, war-ravaged generations.

William Paterson University is both a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and a Minority Serving Institution (MSI) with a student body of 10,500 located in the greater NYC area. As the pandemic swept across the country last spring, our students found themselves living and learning at COVID-19 Ground Zero. Our 54% Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) student population found themselves dealing with the trauma associated with the pandemic at a higher rate than white peers. In our area, demographic patterns around COVID quickly emerged and as one could have anticipated, BIPOC students found themselves on the front lines as essential workers and those who experienced the ultimate loss, life. 

Prior to the pandemic, recent reform at WP had focused on better serving our increasingly diverse student population. We had been tasked with getting better at getting better by asking and answering the question: How do we move from being a Hispanic enrolling institution to becoming a Hispanic Serving institution? This work had led to a campus transformation, the hiring of our first Chief Diversity Officer, and the opening of our Center for Diversity and Inclusion and Black Student Center—all within the year leading to the pandemic. We also began implementing affinity group gatherings and celebrations designed to create safe spaces for students to be and interact. These spaces became the key to ensure connections with students during the pandemic and forced university transitions to support those connections. One such gathering and group that grew through this transformation was called, Café con Leche-a group led by University staff, that invited faculty, staff, and students to celebrate Latinx cultures.

Cafe con Leche Before and AFterCafé con Leche became an important touch point for members of the WP community during the pandemic. Since it was a well-established structure prior to the pandemic, extending it within our emerging digital learning ecology was easily accomplished. What was established as a celebratory group quickly morphed into a lifesaving, therapy space for us to hear from and listen to students about their trials and tribulations. Instead of hosting topics like la unión y el apoyo they became sessions on mental health, counseling and wellness or ways to access immediate university financial support. Café con Leche became a lifeline for our students!

Café con Leche became a bridge that we previously had not recognized—the intersection of student engagement and university support services. We had many university-wide supports in place, but the problem was getting them to students or getting students to the offices that could assist them. By bringing the offices to the spaces that were already populated by students, we closed the gap between administrative support and student need.

University-wide services hit student affinity groups

Key university supports included a student emergency fund, remote instruction resources including a digital lending library, a food pantry, success grants, technology funds, etc.  Some of these services came directly from knowledge learned during affinity group meetings and were responses to the testimonies shared by students. There was an information gap between what students needed and what the university could support that was decreased by the symbiosis of services and affinity group spaces.

Places to talk—listen, hear and be heard

Many students experiencing trauma do not naturally gravitate to university services.  Intentional spaces must be created prior to needing them! If not, universities run the risk of not knowing what students are experiencing. Affinity spaces become a central hub to engage in “programmatic touching” whereby the support programs offered by an institution meet students’ needs and the lived experiences of students. These spaces must be created and supported before they are needed. At our university, safe spaces established prior to the need/pandemic became sites to listen to students. We learned that the stigma associated with needing help can be overwhelming for students particularly when such dire situations are being faced.  Traditional student facing services were not going to meet the need, not without a little café con leche!

Author’s note: Café Con Leche was created and is maintained at William Paterson By Francisco Diaz and Maribel Rodriguez.  We are proud members; however, we are indebted to our campus leaders.

David A. Fuentes is an Associate professor in the College of Education at William Paterson University. He can be reached at fuentesd2@wpunj.edu.

Johanna Torres is the Director of Student Services at William Paterson University. She can be reached at Torresj55@wpunj.edu.



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David Fuentes

William Paterson University