Honors Students Lead the Way in Latinx Education, Service, and Advocacy Efforts
October 6, 2020

As the Latinx population continues to increase in the U.S., so too do the frequent language and cultural barriers experienced by members of that community. In an effort to address the disparities faced by Latinx individuals, particularly in the realm of healthcare, five Honors students have banded together to lead Collective Corazón (CC), a Latinx-centered student organization founded in the fall of 2019 to help grow cultural competency, awareness, and the opportunity to serve so “[college] students who are not fluent in Spanish (but who will be serving Spanish-speaking individuals) [have] a way to understand how to work through/around cultural and linguistic barriers” in future professional or medical settings.

Collective Corazón Founder, President, and Head of Service Roma Kankaria, a junior biology and Latin American studies double-major on the pre-medicine track, explains that the organization was established on three key pillars: education, service, and advocacy. “In education,” she shares, “we have monthly speaker series with professors or community [to learn] what we can do as students to address the needs of Richmond's Spanish-speaking population.” Next is service, which “involves getting our students interacting with Spanish-speaking individuals and serving their time in some way,” such as volunteer translating at the Sacred Heart Center. Finally, for advocacy, CC “focuses on getting the word out…about the [health] disparities…seen in Latinx populations in the U.S. and also, specifically, in Richmond.”

Zoom screen shot of participants

[Top left-Shea Wenzler, Top right-Roma Kankaria, Bottom left-Sydney Welles, Bottom right-MiJin Cho]

With the spread of COVID-19, the organization has consequently needed to rework the way they offer their educational opportunities. However, rather than allowing the pandemic to negatively impact their programming, they’ve embraced the opportunity to further develop their education pillar and understand the impact COVID-19 has on underserved health populations. According to CC Secretary MiJin Cho, a sophomore double-majoring in psychology and English on the pre-medicine track, CC hopes to “build a safe space for pressing and relevant topics, such as COVID-19’s impact on underserved health populations, current health inequity in RVA, and student mentality towards community safety and social distancing procedures” through a series of virtual, moderated weekly roundtable discussions for VCU students. Furthermore, students are encouraged and welcome to volunteer as lead facilitators for the discussions, allowing for a greater breadth of insight and perspectives to be shared.

Tying education and advocacy together, senior psychology major Shea Wenzler, who serves as the CC Treasurer and Head of Advocacy, opens up that her involvement in CC started from a very personal experience that triggered a desire to learn about and advocate for the Latinx community. “Interestingly enough,” starts Shea, “I got involved with CC through a random conversation with Roma, our president, about my little brother, who is adopted from Guatemala. We were discussing how my family would go visit him while we were still in the adoption process, and how through him and his friends, I’ve learned a lot about the Latinx community.”

Through that conversation, Shea continues, she and Roma formed what are now their mission statement and pillars for CC in an effort to “give the Latinx community a voice” amid the “systematic barriers in physical and mental healthcare, education, and our political environment, that contribute to Latinx health disparities.” As advocates, they plan to roll out the Stakes Project in the fall of 2021, for which the group will create signs stating facts about the health disparities within the Latinx community. In Shea’s words, the goal is to “show our members that they have the capacity to grow as individuals and professionals, to understand a community that they’re not a part of, and ultimately help create systemic change” so as to ensure “equitable care.”

[Ashley Victor]

Their advocacy doesn’t stop there, though. Rather, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in all that they do. CC Head of Outreach Ashley Victor, a sophomore majoring in bioinformatics on the pre-medicine track, lists a number of additional accomplishments and outreach efforts made by CC. To date, CC has also presented on “how language, economic barriers, lack of cultural competency and cultural stigmas inhibit the Spanish-speaking communities from receiving adequate health care service” at the Undergraduate Research Conference for World Studies; formed a partnership with the Health Brigade to provide English-to-Spanish translation services for medical paperwork; and worked within other areas of the Richmond community doing various outreach tasks, such as sanitizing therapy rooms and interacting with children at the ChildSavers mental health and behavioral therapy center.

While Collective Corazón may not be exclusively an Honors organization, despite being formed by Honors students, the values of the Honors College still permeate the group and inspire the members in what they do. “Participating in dynamic activities in the Honors College is what originally brought me to the CC as a founding member and acting vice president,” shares senior biology major Sydney Welles. “The overarching goal of education and accessibility is so crucial to our mission—something that has overlaid very nicely with my goals as an Honors student.” As such, she goes on, “being in the CC has given me a cause that I care deeply about, and Honors has helped me find my voice so that I may bring it to others.” Accordingly, Sydney hopes to bring that “spark” of inspiration and insight with her as she works towards potentially becoming a healthcare professional.

The Honors College is thrilled to have such an active, dedicated group of Honors students taking their Honors education and values out into the community in such a meaningful, lasting way. We are so proud of you, Collective Corazón, and we wish you the best of luck going forward! Additionally, thank you to Dr. Indira Sultanić from the VCU School of World Studies for serving as the advisor to Collective Corazón and for helping them to get established.