Opening Doors: Lenoir-Rhyne and Centro Latino

Soraya Place
Soraya Place, M.A.

Just beyond the Lenoir-Rhyne campus in Hickory, Centro Latino quietly goes about supporting the Latin American community across Catawba and the surrounding counties with resources to help clients navigate everything from immigration law to their children’s homework to meal preparation.

Since its inception in 1998 as a Bible study for local Latino children at First Presbyterian Church in Hickory, Centro Latino has grown and expanded with ongoing backing from the Lenoir-Rhyne students, faculty and staff.

“We’ve been sending students to tutor in the after-school programs at Centro Latino for as long as I can remember — at least 22 years,” said Melody Laney, financial aid operations and federal work-study coordinator at Lenoir-Rhyne.

Some tutors are students who want to get involved with the Hickory community, but in recent years students who participated in the program when they were children want to give back now that they’re in college themselves.

“Our tutoring program is called Abriendo Puertas, which means ‘opening doors’ in English. When the students in the program finish school, they go to college and beyond. Many of them go to LR, then they come back and serve the community here. The cycle repeats,” said Soraya Place, M.A., a Spanish professor at LR and social media and outreach specialist for Centro Latino.

centro latino student

That spirit of giving back is woven into the leadership team at Centro Latino, guided by Gianella Romero MBA ’21, Centro Latino’s executive director since early 2022. She enrolled in Abriendo Puertas shortly after her family immigrated from Mexico.

“My parents were searching for a better place to raise their children. They fell in love with Catawba County,” said Romero. “In fact, one of the first places we lived was Hickory House apartment complex which belongs to LR now. I grew up there, and it makes me feel like my roots are at LR. Even if we wander off into the world for a while, that connection is there.”

Wanting to explore beyond Hickory, Romero completed her undergraduate degree at Winston-Salem State University, but she returned to Hickory and LR for graduate school. In part, she credits her long-term success to the impression her tutor in Abriendo Puertas — a Lenoir-Rhyne student — left on her decades earlier.

Whatever these kids want to become, I want them to see there is a way to make it happen.

Chloe Conner '23

“It’s literally the opening of doors,” said Romero. “The tutors help with schoolwork and learning English, but they’re also showing you what your options are outside these four walls. I know that helped me find my path.”

Current program tutor Chloe Conner ’23, an exercise science major planning a career in occupational therapy echoed Romero. While she loves to see her students' academic progress, she volunteers with the program four afternoons a week for more personal reasons.

“As a kid, I struggled in school, so I can offer them the tools I used to succeed — tools others might not have,” she said. “Even if you struggle, you can make it to college. Even if you aren’t rich you can go to college — most of my costs are covered by grants and scholarships. Whatever these kids want to become, I want them to see there is a way to make it happen.”

Chloe Conner working with students

Alongside Romero, another Abriendo Puertas alumna is making her dreams happen and giving back to Centro Latino. Andrea Quijas Arteaga ’25 works as the center’s client services advocate while completing a double major in entrepreneurship and marketing at LR, but none of that would have happened without Abriendo Puertas.

When I saw the opening at Centro Latino, I set my heart on it. They made a difference for me, and I want to make a difference for my community.

Andrea Quijas Arteaga '25

“I didn’t see the purpose of continuing my education,” Quijas Arteaga said when remembering her early struggles with the language barrier and educational system after violence in her hometown in Mexico drove her to immigrate with her mother to the U.S. After much moving around, the two of them settled in Catawba County.

“When I was a sophomore in high school, my mom took me to Centro Latino, and they had a guest from the College Foundation of North Carolina talking about their own journey to show us how we could pursue higher education,” she said. “After that I started being more active in high school.”

Shortly after that presentation, Quijas Arteaga toured Lenoir-Rhyne and developed a relationship with former assistant director of admission Sheyla Diaz. She knew she wanted to go to LR, but she felt uncertain if it could be done.

“I went back to Centro Latino for resources. I found resources at Lenoir-Rhyne — information to help secure my immigration status and get financial aid. Both organizations helped me through the process.”

Even though Centro Latino helped guide Quijas Arteaga to LR, she came into the client services job almost by accident. “In my freshman year, I needed a job. I went to the career development center on campus, polished my resume and applied for everything I could. When I saw the opening at Centro Latino, I set my heart on it. They made a difference for me, and I want to make a difference for my community.”

In client services, Quijas Arteaga works with community organizations, businesses and other resources to connect clients with the services they need for employment, education, healthcare, legal representation and other needs.

“They range from very easy cases to very complicated ones. Our goal is always to give the client at least some sort of information to help them move toward solutions,” she said. “Even something really easy that may take me a few minutes can mean the whole world to them.

Empathy is the guiding principle around the work Centro Latino does for the community. All the staff and volunteers who have a connection to LR credit their experience on campus with opening a sense of service and respect for others that they carry beyond campus.

Romero said, “Our clients come from so many places, and everyone’s story is just so unique. I think highlighting the importance of everyone’s unique story is something LR does really well. When your story is valuable, you feel like you belong — that builds a strong community wherever you are.”

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