Latino U College Access Receives PepsiCo Foundation’s Smiles in Action Award

Latino U College Access (LUCA) is proud to announce that it was recognized with a Smiles in Action Award from the PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PepsiCo, Inc. (NASDAQ: PEP), one of the world’s leading food and beverage companies. The program is part of the company’s efforts to support local communities by providing resources for valuable programming, such as LUCA’s programs that empower low-income, first-generation Latino students on their journeys to and through college.

LUCA is one of twenty-two 501c3 public charities and organizations across the country to be identified as an award winner.  Through strategic partnerships, such as the Smiles in Action Award, the PepsiCo Foundation seeks to tackle the long-term challenges facing the global food system and do the most good for the most people, with awards focusing on: increasing positive nutrition; spurring prosperity for women and girls; having a positive water impact; and, increasing sustainability efforts. 

“Latino U College Access is extremely grateful for the generous support from the PepsiCo Foundation and for our ongoing partnership with PepsiCo,” said Cosette Gutierrez, Executive Director of LUCA. “When we think about organizations that align well with our mission, PepsiCo is always high on the list.  We are thrilled to have them as part of our LUCA Familia!”

When the devastating impact of COVD-19 on communities around the world became clear, PepsiCo and the PepsiCo Foundation provided vital support in response to the unprecedented crisis. The grant announced today provides funding for local organizations that are able to have an immediate, direct impact on their communities. 

“We look up to the community organizations across America that work tirelessly every day to ensure their neighbors thrive,” said C.D. Glin, vice president of the PepsiCo Foundation and global head of philanthropy. “PepsiCo has a long history of working with local partners to invest in communities where our consumers and employees live and work, and we’re proud to support these organizations in making lasting change.” 

About The PepsiCo Foundation
Established in 1962, The PepsiCo Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PepsiCo, invests in the essential elements of a sustainable food system with a mission to support thriving communities. Working with nonprofits and experts around the globe, we’re focused on helping alleviate hunger, managing water and waste responsibly and supporting women as champions of nutrition from farm to family. We strive for tangible impact in the places where we live and work—collaborating with industry peers, local and international organizations, and our employees to affect large-scale change on the issues that matter to us and are of global importance. Learn more at

During his junior year at Sleepy Hollow High School, Juan was accepted into the Latino U Scholars program and matched with his College Coaches, Linda Zeltner and Diane Wrobleski. Linda and Diane are longtime supporters and experienced volunteers at LUCA, coaching since 2018. This year, they are working with Juan plus two additional Scholars.

Since the summer, Juan, Linda, and Diane have been meeting weekly at a local park or coffee shop to work together on the rigorous college application process; Linda supported Juan as he built his college list and completed his applications, and Diane worked with him on his college essays. Linda and Diane encouraged Juan to apply to more selective schools through the QuestBridge program. A few weeks ago, QuestBridge matches were announced, and Juan will be spending the next four years at Dartmouth College! He is LUCA’s first Scholar who will matriculate there. This Dream Team has developed a great relationship, learning so much from one another. Read more about their journey together in the interview below.

What was it like working together as Coaches and Scholar? What have you learned from each other?

L: Working with Juan has been a joy. From the first day we met at LUCA, I knew Diane and I would be working with an outstanding Scholar.

D: Juan has been an exemplary Scholar and a genuinely nice young man to know. As a retired teacher, I continue to enjoy coaching young people, sharing in their joys and dreams and helping to make those dreams come true.

J: Thanks to Diane, I have learned to revise and edit my work, which has helped me produce high-quality writing and become a more confident and skilled editor of my own work. I have also learned to develop good ideas and make my ideas come to life. From Linda, I have learned more about the college process and how to effectively research more schools and see what they have to offer. Both Linda and Diane’s support and encouragement have been instrumental in my college search journey.

Juan, what are your career goals and aspirations?  

J: I want to major in a STEM field and eventually work as a software developer. In the future, I hope that I can support everyone in my family – allowing my mom to retire – while also working towards something meaningful to society.

What are you most excited about in this new chapter as you graduate high school and become the first in your family to go to college?

J: I’m most excited to use my newfound independence to discover the real world and any undiscovered passions I may have. In addition, I am eager to meet new people and broaden my horizons beyond the small county where I have lived for the past 12 years.

What is the most rewarding part of having Linda and Diane as your Coaches?

J: Linda and Diane are two of the most wholehearted people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I am eternally grateful for their help and encouragement throughout my college journey.  Linda and Diane are not only mentors to whom I look up, but also friends whom I am grateful to have. They are two of the most dedicated and honorable individuals I have ever met. Working with Linda and Diane, despite being stressful at times, has been a very rewarding experience that I will forever cherish.

Linda, how has your experience been as a volunteer College Coach?

L: I love being a volunteer College Coach! I love working not only with the Scholars but the devoted, professional and farsighted (and tireless) staff.

What is the best part about working with Juan?

L: One part that I have really enjoyed about working with Juan is getting to know his mother. She has been an incredible parent despite her own personal challenges. Yet, she has given Juan the tools to succeed and has given her support with every step of his journey. She is in disbelief about Juan’s acceptance to Dartmouth with a full four year scholarship! It is even beyond her biggest dreams! 

D:  It has been a delight to work with Juan because he is always prepared, listens carefully, and asks insightful questions. His determination and perseverance are two admiral traits that contribute to his success.

What are your hopes for Juan’s future?

L: I see Juan doing whatever he wants to in his career and work. And being a vital contributor to his profession and community.

D: I am confident that Juan will succeed at whatever he endeavors, and he will be sure to make a contribution to improve the lives of others.

What message can you share about the rewards of being a College Coach at LUCA?

L: As a teacher, I place education as a stepping stone to broad opportunities for each person’s future. I also see so much educational inequity in our society. As an individual, I can contribute to our society by helping our first-generation students attend schools and receive an education that would be unimaginable without LUCA.

D: Being a College Coach has been a very rewarding and gratifying experience. It is humbling to know that you have helped the next generation of wonderful, hard-working students access the opportunities that make going to college a reality.

Where did you go to college? And what is your favorite college memory? 

L: I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. While I loved living and learning away from home, I am grateful that CWRU gave me the foundation and confidence to not only be a lifelong learner but also the opportunity to have both personal and professional fulfillment. And to continue knowing and sharing the value of a college education!

D: When I attended Hunter College, it had two campuses both in New York City and the Bronx. I traveled by subway between the two schools to use the library and to take classes with gifted professors who inspired me to become a teacher.

New York State Funding Supports LUCA’s Growth

On Wednesday, July 20th, LUCA and our New York State Senate and Assembly Representatives: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senator Shelley B. Mayer, Assemblymember Amy Paulin, and Assemblymember Chris Burdick highlighted $350,000 funding secured in the New York State budget for program expansion in Westchester County. “We are honored to be included in the state budget and look forward to supporting even more first-generation students as they enroll and succeed in college,” said Cosette Gutierrez, Executive Director. 

This generous funding will allow us to deepen our existing school partnerships at White Plains, Ossining, Sleepy Hollow, and Elmsford and expand programming into additional high Latino serving school districts throughout Westchester County, including Port Chester, Peekskill, New Rochelle, and Bedford“At LUCA, we believe in the incredible potential and talent of Latino youth,” said Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, Founder and Strategic Growth Officer. “When we invest in Latino students, we are investing in a brighter future for them, for our communities, and for our nation.” 

During the press conference, two Scholars shared heartfelt remarks about how LUCA helped them achieve their college dreams. The first Scholar was Jocelyn Nieto, a Class of 2015 Scholar and 2018 graduate of American University. While reflecting on my academic and professional journey, I am positive that achieving my goals was thanks in great part to the unconditional support of the LUCA Familia,” Jocelyn shared. “As a first-gen student, there is an overwhelming amount of anxiety surrounding the college process and the world after graduation. Thankfully, I always had LUCA’s support.” 

Attendees also heard from Kate Hidalgo, a Class of 2021 Scholar and rising sophomore at the University of Rochester. She explained, “When I was selected as a Latino U Scholar I was excited and relieved. What I didn’t realize was how much more being a Scholar would mean. LUCA understands that, when you’re first-gen, it is not only the student applying to college but the whole family.”

The entire LUCA Familia is grateful to the Senators and Assemblymembers who made this incredible funding possible. Their support will allow LUCA to enter its next phase of growth and serve even more dedicated students as they become the first in their families to attend college!

What the full Press Conference here!

LUCA is proud to launch the second #InTheirOwnWords series! Over the next few weeks, we will share personal statement essays written by the Latino U Scholars Class of 2022 so that our Scholars can introduce themselves and share their experiences – in their own words. All essays are shared with the permission of each Scholar. The essay below was written by Ramses, a Latino U Scholar from White Plains High School.


“What happened to your hand!?” 

Hearing someone ask this, who wouldn’t think they were gushing blood? But it was far from the crimson red I pictured; instead, a black substance coated my fingers and palms. “It’s just ink,” I laughed. Not ordinary ink, though, but ink from the fountain pen I had begged my mom for as a Christmas present. I had been longing for one: its sleek black shine and gold accents captivated me, holding the promise of elegant and unique writing. As with anything new and unfamiliar, unveiling that promise would take time. I had to practice writing smoothly to keep streaking and blotting to a minimum. Ink, like life, has other plans in mind, unpredictable as it flows through needle-thin crevices. 

The fountain pen has ambitions to write beautifully in extravagant cursive, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Maybe that is why I wanted one so badly. My own desire to strive and succeed runs seamlessly through my needle-thin arteries like ink through a nib. It pumps ambition and desire into everything I attempt, from tinkering with music to drawing, videography, and technology. When I first tried to play the trumpet, I sat in a room until my lips were numb, intent on mastering it despite my lack of experience. When I decided that I wanted to learn how to modify device software, I stared at the Apple logo on my phone for hours, determined to figure it out. Success in any endeavor can only be realized through aspiration for improvement and trial and error. There will always be mistakes along the way, just like the streaks and blots from the ink.

There is nothing quite like the ink in a fountain pen, with each color reflecting its own hue, shades, and attributes. Blessed with a unique name that people remember, I have never been one for conformity either. The unusual intrigues me. I seamlessly transition from a long school day or track practice to watching mathematics or programming YouTube videos such as Numberphile, 3Blue1Brown, or Harvard’s CS50. My curiosity grows as I learn and think deeply about the creative and unusual approaches to calculus, prime numbers, and the most ingenious and unique lessons on Python. However, I can just as easily transition to the more mundane, even simply helping out my mother at home. Like the multi-faceted nature of the ink, I have multiple aspects to myself. 

Life, like the swirling lines written by my fountain pen, is smooth….. until it isn’t. Just as ink streaks, I have had my share of messes, like unexpected family feuds, peer pressure, and the sight of my mother pushing through pain and tears for the future of her children. With an unreliable father, my mother was forced to add to her workload, cleaning house after house, room after room. Seeing her struggle, I realized the literal and physical weight she was carrying. When I began to feel pressured by friends to behave in ways I knew were wrong, I recognized that I had to clean up those “streaks,” determined to honor her sacrifices by achieving academic success. Though too young to work to help our financial instability, I took on extra household chores and also started tutoring my mom in math and science, so that she can obtain her GED. Some of the messes I’ve faced might have left a permanent stain, but with each year and each challenge, I choose new colors, working to follow new paths my life might take.

Through stained hands, spilled ink, and refill upon refill, I will continue to write my own story with as much elegance as I can muster, knowing that there will certainly be messes along the way.

LUCA is proud to launch the second #InTheirOwnWords series! Over the next few weeks, we will share personal statement essays written by the Latino U Scholars Class of 2022 so that our Scholars can introduce themselves and share their experiences – in their own words. All essays are shared with the permission of each Scholar. The essay below was written by Jaly, a Latino U Scholar from Ossining High School.


I hate the smell of incienso burning as we walk. My feet hurt, my legs are cold, my coat is the size of my entire body. This skirt is hideous and I hate my hair. My head aches as my braids pull at my scalp. Why did my mother make me do this? Why are we walking around the village towards the church? Platillera is such an ugly name; the platillo I must hold is so bulky and almost as big as I am. I’d rather be a florera, like the older girls, and carry pretty roses. Why am I wearing heels when I’m only nine years old? Everyone is staring, laughing, and recording. The music is deafening. All the songs sound the same; why is there a band? Kids from school are joining us in our walk, I hope they don’t see me with my mom. Is no one embarrassed? Every single year they celebrate this event. What are they celebrating and why does it always have to be on a day when it is snowing? Why do Ecuadorians have to eat guinea pigs for this celebration? Gross. 

In fifth grade my mother enrolls me in a dual-language program offered by my school district. At first, I am resentful. I’m supposed to be in a class with my friends from last year. Now, I’m learning how to speak and write in Spanish. Nobody laughs at me for stuttering and not being as fluent as they are. We create PowerPoint presentations for Hispanic Heritage Month. I’ve never seen so many kids rush to raise their hands and argue about who will represent Ecuador. For the last week, my classmates decide to bring cultural dishes from their native countries. My parents work full time, so I bring nothing. 

My new friend, Jasmine, who is also Ecuadorian, has made empanadas con queso. I grab a napkin and take an empanada that is still warm and crispy. The sprinkled sugar and pinched edges are perfectly done. She brought so many; they take hours to prepare and it is a huge effort not to burn them. I sip my apple juice and carefully take a tiny bite… I’ve never tasted anything so sweet and soft and brings me such delight. I rush and take a larger bite, one after the other. Suddenly, I feel full. I am left in dismay. I ate three empanadas. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all along? If empanadas taste this good, what must our other traditional foods taste like? In what other ways have I limited my life experiences? 

In high school, I’m no longer a platillera, I carry the roses now, I am a florera. My new pollera fits perfectly, it is not too long and not so heavy on my waist either. I am now appreciative to have participated in la Fiesta del Divino Niño Jesús throughout my formative years, as it celebrates an important part of my culture as an Ecuadorian woman. The internalized hatred of my culture, which I experienced in childhood no longer influences my perspective of myself and my ethnicity. I’m mindful of my thoughts and welcome my uniqueness as I shift away from idolizing European beauty standards and honor my indigenous long curved nose and wide lips. I try to convey this mindset to those around me who still struggle to see their absolute beauty; the beauty that has been passed down for generations by forebearers who’ve endured tremendous obstacles. I am the eldest daughter of immigrant parents. Although they are no longer able to celebrate their cherished traditions in their homeland, I am grateful that they have taught me to respect my cultural heritage. Now I continue to ask myself, in what other ways can I adequately deepen and restore my connection with my ancestors and my country?