Ellen Silber, Ph.D., researches how young Latinas construct their identities.
Photo by Gina Vergel

Ellen S. Silber, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in French literature, but it was statistics that steered her toward her current work—running a mentoring program for young Latinas.

In 2002, Silber was working on a leadership program for girls when she stumbled across some troubling statistics on young Latinas.

“I started reading the statistics and it convinced me that this is a population that deserves my efforts,” Silber said, referring to numbers like these more recent ones:

• One in five Latinas graduates from high school in four years, according to the National Center on Education in 2007.

• The school dropout rate for Latinas is among the highest in the nation at 26 percent, according to CNET Networks in 2008.

• The attempted suicide rate for Latinas is 17 percent—higher than that of any other group of girls in the United States, according to a U.S. congressional briefing in 2007.

“Latinos are the fastest growing population in the country,” Silber said, “yet Latina girls are an invisible population. You don’t read about Latinas in The New York Times or on television news. They struck me as much more needy of mentoring than girls at large.”

So Silber got to work, launching a project in the fall of 2003 called “Mentoring Latinas.” The program provides ongoing mentoring for middle and high school Latinas by Latina college students. It has received more than $300,000 in grants since its inception. Thanks to a recent $50,000 grant from AT&T, secured with the assistance of AT&T senior vice president Leonard J. Cali (FCRH ’82), “Mentoring Latinas” will serve its first group of high school Latinas this fall.

“In ninth and tenth grade, graduation is closer and the future is closer, so it’s quite urgent,” said Silber, who serves as director for the program, which operates out of Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS).

Since its inception, Fordham students who serve as mentors for the program have met with their mentees once a week during the academic year. They introduce the girls to Fordham, familiarizing them with dorm rooms, libraries and college life in general. They open up a new world to the girls, who hail from two Bronx schools—the Thomas Giordano School and, now, New World High School.

“They may live in the same borough that Fordham’s Rose Hill campus calls home, but most have never been inside the gates,” Silber said. “It’s so important to see and experience life on a college campus. People don’t cross these boundaries unless they are invited.”

A key member of the Mentoring Latinas staff, Silber said, is its bilingual project administrator, Miriam Quilan, a licensed clinical social worker, who’s charged with supervising the mentors and engaging parents in dialogues about raising bicultural daughters, understanding the school system and helping their daughters apply to college.

Silber and her co-authors expounded on the extra challenges biculturalism poses for young Latinas in a recent journal article titled “Club Amigas: A Promising Response to the Needs of Adolescent Latinas,” which she wrote with GSS colleagues Carol P. Kaplan, Ph.D., Sandra Turner, Ph.D. and Chaya Piotrkowski, Ph.D.

“At the same time that the adolescent Latina is developing her own identity as a young woman, she is also constructing her cultural identity as a Latina growing up in the U.S.A.,” according to the article, which appeared in Child & Family Social Work. “She may feel torn about becoming an American while at the same time maintaining her Hispanic heritage. Some Latino families emphasize traditional female social roles involving obedience and submission, which can cause conflict between the girls and their parents.”

Mentoring Latinas has been successful, although Silber admits it has been tough to keep up with the adolescent participants after they leave the program. At a focus group held in 2008, however, feedback was encouraging, with girls reporting positive thoughts about their futures, including aspirations to attend college and mentor other young Latinas themselves.

There is strong evidence that mentoring relationships can enhance these teens’ social skills and emotional security, Silber said.

“They are terrific girls,” she said. “They have the potential to be leaders, but the environment is not always a particularly healthy one for them. Imagine if a college-aged Latina took a 13-year-old Latina girl under her wing, visited with her once a week so that the young girl could trust her, look up to her and see that they had a lot in common. She’d have a good chance of being empowered.”

Silber continues to research the population as well as raise funds for the program. In addition, she and her staff are working on a handbook so that the program can be replicated at colleges and universities across the country.

“For Mentoring Latinas to be replicated elsewhere, they wouldn’t need me,” Silber said. “It’s a simple design. Other colleges would need a staff, Latina girls at a middle or high school and Latina college students. It can be successful, and certainly useful, everywhere.”


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.