Around two decades ago, the factory on the corner of Fifth Street and Bristol Avenue used to make envelopes. Not exactly the first place you’d expect to go for a college education.
Esperanza College was founded in 2000 by the community development organization Esperanza, Inc. to bring quality higher education to a population that may otherwise be shut out and left behind.
A branch of Eastern University, the school has become a haven for many Latinos who are hoping to escape crime-ridden areas and obtain an associate degree. Many of the students have been victims of the public school system in North Philadelphia, where students often become lost in over-crowded classrooms and underfunded programs.
Esperanza offers day and night classes with small class sizes that allow for an optimal learning environment that many of its students have never experienced before.
“I remember one student who told me that her first year here was the best of her life,” said Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, dean and vice president of education. “She said she finally found out she had a brain. That she felt like a whole new person.”
Conde-Frazier became the dean of Esperanza College in January 2009. Before then, she was a professor at Claremont School of Theology in California and came to the school on the advice of Esperenza’s president, The Reverend Luis Cortés, Jr.
“I came [to Philadelphia] to do some public speaking for Rev. Cortes and he wanted me to come here,” Conde-Frazier said. “I was still in California at the time so I didn’t really want to leave. But to become involved in a situation, I need to see faces and connect with people, to see and sense the people.”
“Once I came for the interview and I met the people,” Conde-Frazier said, “I knew this was my calling.”
Esperanza, Inc. was founded in 1987 as a faith-based organization aimed at strengthening the Hispanic community. In response to the challenges of Latino life in North Philadelphia, the organization has expanded since then into an agency of 200 employees that offers housing services, community development, educational services and more.
The organization is currently implementing the Hunting Park Neighborhood Plan, that it hopes will help to revitalize the area. The plan is funded through several companies, including Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, Aetna and the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department.
Through commitment to various local organizations and churches, the plan will attempt to provide affordable housing and transportation, improve social and public services, improve education and give a voice to the concerns and priorities of Hunting Park’s residents.
“One institution is not going to make a difference and we can’t do it by ourselves,” Conde-Frazier said. “All of them [in Hunting Park] need to come together. That’s what we want to do with this neighborhood plan, to bring all these people and places together.”
Educating students at Esperanza College is large part of this plan. According to the school’s website, it has a 64 percent graduation rate compared to an average rate of 17 percent at comparable two-year community colleges in the area.
Sheri Luckey, director of student life at the school, works “hand-in-hand” with the students who sometimes struggle with adjusting to the demands of higher learning.
“Many of them are under-prepared,” Luckey said. “And it’s not because they are not capable, they are just a little unprepared in English and Math and [the students] need some guidance.”
The campus offers several resources for its students, including a library with several computers that is also made open to the public. Additionally, the school offers career and study-skill workshops to aid its students.
Through a federal Title V Grant, which provides funding to Hispanic-serving institutions, Esperenza has begun construction on a new educational space. New educational labs, faculty offices, a student center and an expanded library will be added, much of which will be available to the public.
“Esperanza is a sanctuary for a lot of students,” Luckey said. “It’s a lot they’re dealing with out there. People growing up in the city, in the urban environment, they go through a lot. They come here and they are nurtured. They come here and they learn things they never dreamed of learning. Through their hard work, they are amazed.”
Hunting Park resident and second-year student Jalessa Figueroa, 19, has seen the violence and crime that comes with growing up in the neighborhood. At one point in her life, Figueroa tried to move to Northeast Philadelphia with her father. After a month she said she “missed the noise” and returned to her home in Hunting Park.
“There’s so much bad around [Hunting Park], you can’t see the good in it,” Figueroa said.
During her senior year at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, Figueroa’s mother could no longer afford her tuition. In order to gain her high school diploma, she organized her own fundraisers. At the events she would sing, have friends play music and serve assorted cultural dishes.
Figueroa still uses these fundraisers to pay for her tuition at Esperanza College and even helps others in the community organize their own.
“Some of them have encountered violence from the neighborhood, but they persevere,” Luckey said. “So when we finally get to graduation day and you finally see them walk across the stage and get the diploma, it’s such a joy, because it’s just the beginning.”