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Jose Rodriguez (left) and Renato Roncal attend a club meeting where members discussed senior send offs.

When Dayana Ferman transferred to JMU in 2016, she was on the hunt to meet new people.

Back in her hometown of Leesburg, Virginia, she said she was used to being a minority. According to the United States Census, 75.6% of Leesburg’s residents are white, compared to 17.2% of residents who are Hispanic or Latino. JMU’s demographics tell the same story.

According to Data USA, Hispanic or Latino students make up 5.92% of the JMU population in 2016.

Back home, Ferman was one of the few Latinas in her class. The nerves of finding a home within JMU kicked in as she started her college years, hoping she wouldn’t have a repeat of her life back home.

At Student Organization Night, the senior public health major saw a table for the Latino Student Alliance. She signed up for the email list but still had reservations about joining until she became a Transfer Orientation Guide, which increased her familiarity with the club. Ferman gained more interest in the club through a fellow TOPA, Marilyn Sanchez (’18), who was a part of LSA.

“I didn’t necessarily join LSA as a member, but I would go to the events with my friends,” Ferman said. “Marilyn introduced me to her friends and, I don’t know, that circle just kind of became my really close friend group.”

Ferman enjoyed how friendly and fun the members of the club were and could picture herself getting along with them. She said she was excited about joining LSA the next year, so that’s exactly what she did. 

According to the club’s BeInvolved page, LSA was created in 1995 with the goal of providing Latino students with a space that allows them to connect with other students from similar backgrounds. The club isn’t exclusive to Latino students, though, people from all backgrounds can join. 

For Gabriela Kassar-Sanchez, a sophomore human resource management major, she was impressed by the number of Latino students on campus when she attended her first general body meeting, as she found it difficult to find Latino representation at JMU. Through the club, she also saw how positive the environment was and enjoyed the informal nature of the meeting.

“At first, walking around campus, I could not identify anybody else that looked like me, and I was a little bit worried,” Kassar-Sanchez said. “I thought, ‘Oh, maybe the [Latino] world was really small.’ There were a lot of people, and everyone was friendly. Everyone was nice. They had music playing, and it seemed like a hangout spot, not formal.”

LSA kicks off every school year with Bienvenida Latina, a co-sponsorship event with the Latinx Greek fraternities and sororities where they have a cookout to welcome back old faces and say hello to new ones. Afterward, they have “Bigs and Littles” week, which gives new members the opportunity to meet current members and have a figure who acts as a role model within the club. 

Leykie Green, a sophomore biotechnology major, is originally from Panama and joined LSA this year after turning it down multiple times. From the outside, she always saw how united the club was and felt like an outsider. This past semester, she got a “Big,” Laura Funes, a junior social work major. She said she enjoys having someone else in the club to guide her and make her feel welcome. 

“[LSA is] like another home — it’s beautiful,” Green said. “I love the fact that, with my ‘Big,’ she tries to invite me into things and make me feel like I always have another family member here to help bring me into the homeyness of campus.”

Once “Bigs and Littles” week is over, LSA moves onto Hispanic Heritage Week. This week puts on a variety of events to showcase its culture to the JMU community. Ferman serves as the club’s culture and community chair and is in charge of planning out the week. She ensures that every event presents a wider range of Hispanic culture rather than one big idea.

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“There’s this term, and its ‘Latinidad,’ and it’s not the most positive term, because it’s taking all of the cultures and just putting it in one and it’s not like that at all,” Ferman said. “There are so many variances within the countries, and each different country has its own culture.”

Hispanic Heritage Week is a chance for the club to represent its culture through informative and representational events like “The Amazing Race,” where four teams run across campus and compete against each other in different challenges, and the Hispanic Film Festival in Downtown Harrisonburg. 

“I feel like what we do is we do a lot of family bonding events,” Green said. “We painted the spirit rock to show our presence, our heritage, and whatnot, and then immediately after, we did this amazing race all around campus, and that was amazing. [The events] not only [show] our heritage ties us together but the love that we have for our culture and how willing we are to spread that around the community by focusing on ourselves and trying to make sure we’re showing it around and having fun.”

Throughout the year, LSA holds volunteer and social events. At the end of the year, it celebrates at a banquet called “Celebración Latina,” where the club gives a scholarship to a Hispanic high school student in Harrisonburg, which they can use toward college-related expenses. The scholarship is fundraised over the course of the year.

LSA members say it helps them create a new home within JMU that makes them feel included. Not only that, but they also create friendships and memories that they will take with them after graduation. 

“LSA is kind of my way of feeling like I belong on campus and that I deserve to be here just as much as anybody else on this campus,” Ferman said. “It’s kind of my way of being able to have a home away from home because I listen to Latino music all the time. Like, who can I share that with — my Latino friends. I don’t think that I would’ve felt as at home if I didn’t have LSA.”

Contact Talia Davis at davisty@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.