Rays of sun stream through the skylights above El Centro, and for a moment the atmosphere feels reminiscent of a mild afternoon. The light soon takes second place to the warmth within the Hispanic and Latino cultural and community center at Virginia Tech.

For those who self-identify as Latinx, advocate for this population, or have an interest in their culture, El Centro offers a retreat into a multiple-language library, bimonthly luncheons, drop-in advising hours, workshops, readings, and professional development workshops. But the center wants to do more.

Carmen Giménez Smith, a professor in the Department of English, and Veronica Montes, assistant director of El Centro, plan to host the first Virginia Tech Latinx Symposium in March 2019. To help with the production cost, the center is sponsoring a JUMP crowdfunding campaign.

“This symposium will be the first event of its kind in southwest Virginia,” Smith said. “It doesn’t serve just the Latinx student population, but also interested faculty, administrators, and students who want to know more about the Latinx academic experience. As Virginia Tech works to increase the Latinx student population, we feel that increasing visibility, providing a forum for Latinx scholarship, and sharing pedagogical strategies for faculty who work with Latinx students will make this a valuable project.”

This symposium will include teaching workshops, graduate student poster sessions, professional development panels, and networking events. Smith and Montes hope these events will forge a deeper connection between the university and its Latinx population. Not only will the gathering allow students to present their research, but it will also help build community and support Virginia Tech’s initiatives to grow underserved populations.

Montes said she wants students to make connections beyond grades or casual networking because research shows that the relationships made during college years are a good indicator of one’s future well-being.

The symposium is an opportunity for all faculty to gain a deeper understanding of Latinx students. She believes the conference can both address issues of unconscious bias and the tokenizing of students and help make Virginia Tech more desirable for underserved populations to attend.

“It’s important for students to see faculty and staff who look like them or maybe share a common history,” Montes said. “We hope students will find something appealing and inspiring in seeing other successful people from their culture.”

And the conference may encourage more potential students to seek faculty with similar cultural identities.

Such connections are why Mirna Veronica Palacio Ornelas, who is Smith’s graduate assistant, decided to work toward her M.F.A. in creative writing in the Virginia Tech Department of English. A member of the symposium crowdfunding team, she is also an example of someone who came to the university to work with a particular faculty member.

“I came to here to work with Carmen specifically,” Palacio Ornelas said. “I knew she would understand and we would have the conversations I needed to be successful in my given field of poetry.”

To help make the first Virginia Tech Latinx Symposium possible, donors can contribute to the JUMP campaign online. Donations support programming and event costs.

“This is a historical moment,” Smith said. “Simultaneously there is an immigration backlash, which in many ways is a backlash against Latinx people, and meanwhile Virginia Tech wants to grow its population. But the Latinx population here is very small, so we’d like to say ‘Yes, we’re here. We’re doing good work. If you come here as a student you’ll have a great experience, not just with your faculty, but also with the programming we offer and the community.’”

Written by Leslie King