Making a Difference in Our Hispanic Community

Marisel Villegas is on her way to achieving her dream of becoming a radiology technologist, thanks to a scholarship program established by a local Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College student and a donation from Merchants & Marine Bank. Marisel is the first recipient of the Society Advocating for Latin Student Advancement (S.A.L.S.A.) scholarship, which will cover her full tuition at MGCCC.

Where It All Began

The idea for the S.A.L.S.A. scholarship came to Lucia Barberena while attending an event highlighting up-and-coming local Hispanic businesses and individuals in the courtyard of the bank’s main office in Pascagoula. Lucia previously had recognized the lack of Hispanic representation around the MGCCC campus, especially when Hispanic students who had been attending classes were no longer on campus. She would check in with these former students and learned that many of them dropped out of school due to financial issues.

When we think of influencers, we may think of someone leveraging their expertise and social media to promote a product or encourage their followers to act. Lucia isn’t a heavy social media user; she influences others through her actions. She set out to provide support for Hispanic students at MGCCC by first organizing the Jackson County Hispanic American Club (JCHAC) to help celebrate and bring awareness to Hispanic culture on campus. “Involvement increases the likelihood of (Hispanic students) finishing their degrees,” Lucia noted. The club provides the opportunity for Hispanic students to get involved in extracurricular activities such as kayaking and dance nights.

Finding a Partner in Merchants & Marine Bank

Next, she began raising funds toward the S.A.L.S.A. Scholarship endowment. “It was something I had thought about for a long time, but I wasn’t sure it was possible,” she said. She thanks her Honors College advisors for encouraging her. When she started reaching out to local businesses and organizations, she received more than positive feedback and excitement – she received thousands of dollars in donations toward the endowment.

When Clayton Legear, President and CEO of Merchants & Marine Bank and a MGCCC Foundation board member, heard about Lucia’s efforts, he knew this was something the bank had to support. He saw that Lucia’s values reflect those of the bank, including resilience and a focus on the family and community.

Those same values are also found within the Gulf Coast’s Hispanic community, which increased by 55 percent between 2010 and 2020. The opportunity to support Lucia’s dream of funding a scholarship to help those in the growing Hispanic community achieve their dreams ensured that the bank’s $43,000 donation would have maximum impact. “No matter what Lucia chooses to do, she’s going to make a difference,” Clayton said. And the bank wanted to help her, help the greater community.

Influence in Action

Once the S.A.L.S.A. Scholarship endowment was established, Lucia went to area high schools to talk about the opportunity and encourage students to apply. She also reached out to Marisel, who she met while working on a Phi Beta Kappa project to raise awareness of ESL classes. Fearing for the safety of herself and her daughter, Marisel fled her native Venezuela twelve years ago, leaving behind her professional career to immigrate to the United States. She did not speak English at the time but was able to provide for her family by working as many as three low-paying jobs at one time. With her daughter now in college, and having completed English-language classes, Marisel had expressed her own desire to enroll in college as a non-traditional student to pursue a degree in radiologic technology. Her application, which included an essay about how her experience as a member of the Hispanic community had impacted her and would influence how she chose to utilize her education and career, stood out and she was awarded the scholarship in May.

“I hope the S.A.L.S.A. Scholarship creates a legacy for the Hispanic community and gives those who may not otherwise have the chance to live out their own dreams,” said Lucia. Establishing the scholarship endowment is just one of many achievements for Lucia, whose previous accomplishments include serving on the board of MGCCC’s  Student Government Association, being named to the All-Mississippi and All-USA Academic Teams, and being one of only three students in the state to be named a 2022 Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholar. In 2020, she became Mississippi’s first female Eagle Scout; this summer, she is serving as a Keys Adventure Mate with the National High Adventure Program at Sea Base in the Florida Keys. She plans to attend law school with the goal of becoming an immigration attorney.

Learn more

To learn more about the S.A.L.S.A. Scholarship, visit MGCCC’s website.

For more information on the Jackson County Hispanic American Club, visit the organization’s Facebook page.