Making College Dreams a Reality for First-Generation Latino Students
Shirley Acevedo Buontempo talks about what drives her ongoing mission to aid the area’s immigrant population.
photograph by stefan radtke
Somers resident Shirley Acevedo Buontempo came to the US from Puerto Rico when she was just 10 years old. Not speaking a word of English, she quickly picked up the language and excelled at the Bronx school she attended. Not only did Buontempo become the first in her family to attend college, she soon rose to senior executive positions in the arena of Hispanic advertising and brand marketing. However, those are not her proudest accomplishments.
Buontempo, 54, says what truly fulfills her is giving back to the community through her work as founder and executive director of White Plains-based Latino U College Access, which she founded in 2012. The nonprofit’s goal is to increase college enrollment and completion for low-income Latino youth in Westchester County who are the first in their family to attend college.
While Westchester is known for its excellent schools and students who go on to top colleges across the country, Buontempo says, “It’s obvious that family education and income are related to a child’s ability to succeed. So it’s that inequity that Latino U is trying to address.
“Our Latino U students have the academic ability and potential to achieve their goals,” she continues. “What we’re doing for them is what you do for your own kids. We’re here to give them the emotional support, the guidance, the belief, and the encouragement they need when it comes to the college-applications process and applying for financial aid.”
In order to do that, Buontempo works with one part-time and three full-time employees, a devoted board of directors and advisory council, rotating college interns, and just under 300 volunteers. These area volunteers come from agencies such as Tarrytown-based Volunteer New York! and through corporate partnerships with business organizations such as Morgan Stanley and MasterCard.
One of the reasons Buontempo has been so successful with Latino U is because she has followed a similar path to many of her students. “Shirley knows the struggle. She knows what it’s like to be Latino in this country, to be low-income, and to be a first-generation college student,” says Andres Castillo Quintana, a Latino U Scholar who graduated from Bedford’s Fox Lane High School in 2014 and is currently a junior at Princeton University.
When it came to her own choice for college, Buontempo decided to stay close to her family in the Bronx. She attended Pace University in Pleasantville, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1984. After college, she was able to parlay her business background and bilingual skills into a career in Hispanic marketing. Working for Font & Vaamonde, a Hispanic subsidiary of Grey Advertising, Buontempo served as an account executive on such prestigious accounts as Procter & Gamble’s Downy fabric softener and Crisco Corn Oil.
In 1987, Buontempo (née Acevedo) married her high-school sweetheart, Anthony Buontempo. Also the first generation in his family to go to college, he’s now the chief operating officer for a Greenwich high-net-worth family, overseeing their finances and real estate portfolio. The couple had their first daughter, Cassandra, in 1993, followed by Alexa two years later.
Ever since her days at Pace, Buontempo’s hope was to come back and raise her family in Westchester. In 2001, they moved from New Jersey to Somers, and Buontempo found herself in a dreamlike situation, living with her husband and girls in a beautiful home with a pool. She soon began to feel guilty about how blessed she was and started to look for ways she could give back to the community.
“Shirley has always had a terrific heart, and that’s what attracted me to her ever since we were teenagers,” says Anthony. “She’s a beautiful person inside and out, and I’ve always admired her commitment to giving back to the community. As the kids have grown up, we’ve discussed as a family how important it is to do something to help someone else, to give back to help your neighbor or friends or anyone who needs it.”
Buontempo and her daughters started volunteering at a food pantry operated by the Katonah-based Community Center of Northern Westchester, which provides meals, clothing, and other support services to families and individuals in need. More than 75 percent of the center’s clients are Hispanic, so when they found out about Buontempo’s many skills — including the fact that she was bilingual — they asked her to come onboard. For the next four years, she served as their assistant director and focused on client intake.
“That was my first job in the nonprofit world, and it touched my heart and soul in ways I never imagined,” says Buontempo. “I felt that this is what I really want to do: I want to help families in our community have better lives.”
As she continued her new career path at organizations that gave back to the community, Buontempo strengthened her devotion to working for social good and became enthralled with the business of the nonprofit industry. Deciding to pursue a master’s degree in nonprofit management, she enrolled in Pace University’s public-administration program in 2009.
Acevedo Buontempo relaxing at home with daughter Alexa.
It was at this same time that Buontempo was helping Cassandra begin the college application process. “I spent a great deal of time giving my daughter the resources and support she needed to become a successful college applicant,” she says. “Simultaneously, I was hosting Neighbors Link Family Night workshops, where parents would share with me their desires to ensure that their children would have college educations.
“I personally saw the disparity that existed in Westchester County between those with resources and those without, and it all came together,” she adds. “I was inspired to do something to help provide access and opportunity to others.”
One of the first graduate courses Buontempo enrolled in at Pace was a class on social entrepreneurship, where she focused on a project to create a nonprofit that addressed the educational needs of Hispanic students. Her research shed light on the poor college attainment and graduation rates that Hispanics were experiencing and the challenges they faced: Only 19 percent of Hispanics have a college degree, with the national average being about 42 percent. Statistically, Hispanics have the lowest level of college completion of all ethnic groups yet are the fastest-growing demographic.
That initial report for her social-entrepreneurship class led to Buontempo’s capstone project, which was focused on increasing college access and success among first-generation Latino youth. After graduating in 2010, she turned her graduate school project into a business plan, resulting in the launch of Latino U College Access in November 2012.
Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Latino U has delivered bilingual college community-information sessions to more than 2,300 Latino students and parents, in addition to assisting hundreds of students via workshops and classes on FAFSA applications, SAT/ACT testing, and college-essay writing.
Buontempo confides that she is so dedicated to and fulfilled by her work that she could practically do it 24/7. However, when pushed, she admits that in her spare time, she loves traveling with her husband, scuba diving, reading, seeing movies, and going to plays. She also enjoys visiting her now-grown daughters, with Cassandra currently enrolled at NYU, in a graduate studies program in public relations, and Alexa working in the fashion industry.
“They’re both very aware of the blessings and opportunities they’ve received and the excellent educational opportunities they’ve had,” says Buontempo of her daughters. “I feel fortunate that they see me as a role model and feel inspired to pursue their dreams and passions, and to take the time to volunteer and give back to the community.”
Laura Joseph Mogil is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor. She is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and Westchester Home. She also has a food blog at inspiredchef.net.