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Bergen Community College staff member Gloria Cevallos led a parade of flags during Hispanic Heritage Month last fall.

PARAMUS, N.J. – When Bergen Community College President Eric M. Friedman, Ph.D., arrived on campus in 2021, he quickly learned that students, faculty and staff prized the College’s standing as a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as a point of pride in Bergen’s overall identity. With more than 40 percent of Bergen students identifying as Hispanic, the College easily surpassed the 25 percent benchmark for institutions to earn the designation. Though HSIs gain access to opportunities such as specific federal grants, Friedman saw even more potential in the designation for Bergen.

“A college becomes an HSI based on a percentage of an enrollment,” he said. “But the real conversation starts when colleges embrace their status as an HSI to provide customized supports for their Hispanic student population. Being an HSI means so much more than a number – it’s a promise to our Hispanic community.”

As a central focus in Friedman’s commitment to championing initiatives related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness, Friedman worked with members of the College’s Hispanic community to develop a comprehensive strategy of tailored initiatives. Among them, Bergen has deepened its ties to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). The advocacy organization provides access to programs, initiatives and funding for Hispanic students, including an internship program with the federal government.

To connect students with the Hispanic National Internship Program, HACU executive director Dianna Vasquez has personally visited Bergen in each of the past three years, hosting an information session at the College’s main campus.

“Bergen is a pillar in New Jersey for championing Hispanic success,” she said during a visit. “What’s wonderful about an institution like Bergen is that by its design, the institution is doing it every day in an effortless way.”

Two Bergen students have secured internships as part of the program: Askar Mirza, whom HACU placed with the United States Agency for International Development within the Office of Management, Policy, Budget and Performance, and Edgardo Aguilar, who will soon intern at the Department of Justice. Aguilar, a finance major who recently graduated from Bergen, credited Friedman and College leaders Gloria Cevallos, Amparo Codding and Cesarina Vinas for extending their assistance.

“Their dedication to fostering real-world learning environments has had a profound impact on my academic journey,” he said. “Thanks to their support, I feel empowered to apply my knowledge in such a meaningful and impactful setting at the Department of Justice.”

College leaders and students such as Aguilar have also deepened Bergen’s relationship with HACU by attending the organization’s annual conference. The events, held in San Diego and Chicago the last two years, provide an opportunity for attendees to present on best practices, network with colleagues and learn how colleges can best support Hispanic students. The Bergen Community College Foundation sponsored scholarships to enable to students’ attendance.

“National conferences open doors for students, exposing them to learning opportunities and networks they would not otherwise have access,” Friedman said. “Colleges have a responsibility to pursue these types of initiatives if they seek to live their mission.”

To continue to expansion of the HACU partnership, Friedman has appointed Assistant Vice President of Financial Aid and Compliance Yessika Garcia-Guzman, Ph.D., and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands Campus Executive Joao Sedycias, Ph.D., to serve as official liaisons to the organization.

Meanwhile, Friedman has also embraced the College’s standing as an HSI by encouraging leaders to expand on-campus Hispanic cultural programming throughout the year. Formerly, most of Bergen’s Hispanic-focused celebration and recognition events occurred only during October’s Hispanic Heritage Month.

“Hispanic culture remains an important thread in Bergen’s identity,” he said. “We do not just celebrate Hispanic culture, or any other culture, within the confines of a single month. We embrace and celebrate our diversity every day – it’s woven into who we are.”

The LatinxCEO initiative, which offers skill-building workshops, internships and industry-recognized certifications for students, also reflects the institution’s focus on Hispanic outreach. The College launched LatinxCEO as a workforce development initiative that targets underrepresentation in the workplace. Bergen leaders work closely with members of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, which maintains its headquarters at Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands, to create learning experiences as part of the program. The Meadowlands location also houses the College’s Hispanic-focused business incubator that targets assisting early-stage entrepreneurs in the region.

The embrace of the HSI designation remains part of Friedman’s focus on creating an environment of belongingness at the College. The idea appears throughout organizational ethos in items such as the mission, vision, values, presidential goals and strategic plan. The President’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leads many efforts related to belongingness, including sponsoring projects such as a collegewide climate survey to uncover how the institution could further enhance its inclusivity efforts. In consecutive years, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine has recognized Bergen as one of the “most promising places to work in community colleges.”

“Everyone belongs at Bergen,” he said.

Based in Paramus, Bergen Community College (www.bergen.edu), a public two-year coeducational college, enrolls more than 13,000 students at locations in Paramus, the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center in Hackensack and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The College offers associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs in a variety of fields. More students graduate from Bergen than any other community college in the state.

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