When the opportunity arose to become a resource and advocate for fellow Hispanic students at Marymount University, sophomore Jessica Benitez and junior Ashly Trejo Mejia were eager to fill the role.
“I think I have the ability to grow as a leader and share opportunities available to people of color,” Benitez said.
Both students became the first from Marymount to be accepted into the highly competitive Leaders-in-Residence program, led by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities — the only national association representing existing and emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs). HACU is a leader on behalf of 500 colleges and universities across the country, including 323 HSIs, dedicated to the success of Hispanic students in higher education.
More than 25 percent of the undergraduate student population at Marymount identifies as Hispanic, earning the institution the HSI designation in 2020.
As part of the Leaders-in-Residence program, students receive leadership and career development training throughout the academic year. The pinnacle event for the Leaders-in-Residence program is the HACU Annual Conference and its ¡Adelante! Leadership Institute, where more than 500 students from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico collaborate and build career and leadership skills while attending workshops, presentations and exhibitions.
“I’m looking forward to attending the conference because I really want to gain skills, make connections and feel a sense of home with the other attendees,” Trejo Mejia said. “I think I’m most excited to be surrounded by students, educators and professionals that understand what it’s like to be a Hispanic student.”
Both Trejo Mejia and Benitez identify as Hispanic and are part of on-campus organizations that focus on empowering Marymount’s Hispanic student population.
Benitez is currently pursuing degrees in Sociology on a pre-law track and Criminal Justice, with the ambition of becoming an attorney specializing in policy reform. For her, Marymount was the best institution to earn her degree because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., the epicenter of legislation and home of the U.S. Department of Education.
Her parents are from El Salvador, and while she was born and raised in the U.S., Benitez grew up celebrating her family’s culture and considers Spanish her native language.
“It’s a huge part of my identity and I like to make it known,” Benitez said.
She not only serves as a senator for the University’s Student Government Association (SGA), but Benitez also is engaged as the Public Relations Officer for the Latinx Student Association and is a member and ally of the MU Dreamers organization, which aims to support undocumented students.
In addition to gaining career-advancing skills, Leaders-in-Residence participants also learn about HACU’s internship opportunities and scholarship programs. Leaders are encouraged to conduct information sessions on campus about these services to increase engagement and opportunities for fellow students.
For Trejo Mejia, guiding other students through the sometimes overwhelming transition to college is a personal mission. Born in Honduras, Trejo Mejia moved to the U.S. with her family when she was about three or four years old. Her family settled in Hyattsville, Md., and she has now spent a majority of her life in this country.
“I am a DACA recipient and the college process was stressful,” she recalls. “During my senior year [of high school,] there were not that many resources — but Marymount was able to open a door for me through TheDream.US scholarship.”
With more than 70 partner colleges, TheDream.US is the nation’s leading college access program for Dreamers, and awards its national scholarship to students who demonstrate a commitment to community service. Marymount joined as a partner college in 2019, and welcomed its inaugural cohort of TheDream.US scholars the same year.
“Being a first-generation student, I want to be able to provide help and make students feel even more welcome here at Marymount,” Trejo Mejia said. “I wish I had resources during the time that I was applying to college, so I would love to share that for future students.”
Trejo Mejia leads the MU Dreamers organization as Vice President, and says she plans to share more about HACU’s resources with members of the group and with the entire campus community through her role as a SGA Senator. She is currently studying Biology with a pre-medicine track, and is gaining invaluable experience as an intern at a research clinic in Washington, D.C.