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Graduate, professional student association works to 'feel like a home' for Latino community

Members of LGPSA welcome students at their International Student Welcome Fiesta at the Bell Tower outdoor amphitheater on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Pictured from left to right, Daniel Vélez, co-president; Samantha Rubio, secretary; Paz Cook, co-president; Luis Zambrana, treasurer; Tiffany Portacio, membership and internal organization manager; Tatiana Quijano, salsa teacher; Carmen Mendoza, social media manager.

When master's student Samantha Rubio first arrived at UNC, she struggled to find a Latino group. She grew up in Peru and identifies as a Hispanic.

“Despite me saying on repeated occasions that I identified as Latin, no one from the University really helped me find other Latin people. So that was really hard for me, especially the first couple of months not really having anyone from my own culture around me,” Rubio said.

Rubio searched for eight months before finding the Latine Graduate and Professional Student Association (LGPSA) through a friend. 

She said her time at the University, specifically as a member of an underrepresented community, has been challenging because she felt very alone, but has felt a stronger sense of belonging since she found the LGPSA. 

The LGPSA is a student-run organization for students who identify as or are in support of Latin American and Hispanic people attending the University. The club seeks to "foster a sense of community and belonging" for these students. 

“Our group is a social group, but also we are trying to feel like a home,” LGPSA co-president Daniel Vélez said.  

Vélez and Rubio agreed that one of the most important aspects of the group is the ability to speak in Spanish to one another. English is not the first language of many of the LGPSA members, and Vélez said that it can be overwhelming at times to find the right words in daily University activities. 

LGPSA became an official student organization in the spring of 2022 and recruited its first members that fall. Before then, the community functioned as a smaller group called La Familia. The student organization has now grown to include over 90 members.

Paz Cook, LGPSA co-president, is pursuing a Ph.D. in epidemiology and is an international student from Chile. She was a part of La Familia and became involved with LGPSA in the spring of 2022.

LGPSA co-president Paz Cook posed for a portrait at Baity Hill on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. Cook is an international student from Chile and is in pursuit of a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

Cook said when she arrived in the United States, she recognized the challenges that Latino people have in the country, citing that many work within the service industry and may face barriers to education.

“Very few [Latinos] have the opportunity to really be a professional here," Cook said. "My feeling was it is important to try and put all the people together to make a force. To try, for example, to be an incentive to all of our kids that live here to show them that they also can be a professional. It’s not impossible, they can do it.” 

As co-president, Cook said she feels as though she has been given the power to bring people together in this community through the activities LGPSA does. 

LGPSA has a monthly meeting — Café Con Leche — where they meet at the Graduate Student Center to decompress, find community and chat with others, Carmen Mendoza, LGPSA's social media manager said. The group also hosts different events throughout the year, such as film screenings, salsa dance nights and social hours.

The LGPSA is looking to add academic and professional components to the group to support students, Rubio said. She added that she hopes these initiatives will help some LGPSA members find jobs, scholarship opportunities and better communicate with their teachers. 

Starting this year, Café Con Leche will have a different concentration in each meeting with more structured agendas, which they hope will encourage current members to participate more in LGPSA activities and discussions.

The first meeting of the year, which will take place on Sept. 19, for Hispanic Heritage Month, will assist new graduate and professional students with locating University and local resources to ease their transitions to campus life and find community at UNC.


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Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately reported when LGPSA was formed. It also incorrectly stated when Paz Cook joined the organization. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.