Justin Colón currently serves as Senior Adviser to the Vanderbilt Association of Hispanic Students (VAHS), but he wasn’t always as involved in the organization as he is now. It wasn’t until classmate Melissa de la Torre made him choreograph a salsa with her for Café con Leche, VAHS’s Latino dance showcase, during their freshman year that Colón began to love the VAHS community.
Now as seniors, Colón and de la Torre are again choreographing a dance together- this time, a merengue.
My goals for presidency were to make VAHS the family, the community that I was hoping to make it.
Colón’s grandparents migrated from Puerto Rico to New York City, and his family has lived there since. Colón grew up in Queens, New York City in a large family and a strong community. Latino culture was a large part of Colón’s life growing up.
“My culture and identity was something I never really thought of because I didn’t really have to think about it,” Colón said. “It just kind of came and I didn’t really question it.”
Colón participated in performing arts before coming to Vanderbilt. He liked that the people he knew through performing arts in high school were another community that he could be a part of. However, Colón didn’t dance formally until he was involved in Café con Leche his freshman year at Vanderbilt.
Colón is attending Vanderbilt because he received the Posse Scholarship, a full-tuition merit scholarship. The Posse Foundation creates cohorts of first-generation college students from an inner city and sends them to college together, according to the foundation’s website. These students receive the social and academic support to help them develop and succeed in college.
During his senior year of high school, Colón met his cohort of students from New York City. They met regularly during freshman and sophomore year and now meet on a more informal basis. For Colón, his cohort has become an important community for him at Vanderbilt.
Colón was busy with a variety of organizations during his freshman year, but he became involved with VAHS by choreographing the Salsa dance with de la Torres. This experience encouraged Colón to become more involved with VAHS so that he could contribute more to Café con Leche.
“I applied to be Café co-chair my sophomore year, and I was ready for the challenge,” Colón said. “I was really excited about it.”
As a co-chair, Colón’s goal was to make Café con Leche bigger and better than ever before. However, VAHS had to downsize the show that year due to a lack of funding, and Café con Leche was held in the Student Life Center instead of Langford Auditorium.
Determined to not let Café con Leche be downsized again, Colón and his fellow co-chair Ellen Yeats worked hard to sell out the show.
“We had standing room only,” Colón said. “We haven’t gone back to the SLC (since that year) and we won’t ever go back.”
Colón applied to be president of VAHS his junior year to take on even more responsibilities, a role that he held last year.
“My goals for presidency were to make VAHS the family, the community that I was hoping to make it,” Colón said. “With Café, I wasn’t able to do that with the organization because I had such a specific role. But as president I knew I had a broader responsibility and I could make VAHS what I wanted it to be.”
Looking back on his time as president, Colón feels as though he was able to achieve these goals. Specifically, Colón and de la Torre, now the president of VAHS, have strengthened the organization internally and created more opportunities for members of VAHS to be directly involved in the organization. This year, VAHS had a committee of students who planned the logistics of Hispanic Heritage month. There is also a committee organizing Café con Leche for the first time.
“There are so many more opportunities for students of Latino descent to come in and say, ‘I want to be a part of this,’” Colón said.
Colón sees VAHS as functioning similarly to other multicultural organizations on campus. He explained that multicultural organizations function as leadership organizations in that they give students a responsibility so that the success of the organization is the contingent on the student.
Something I’ve noticed about being at Vanderbilt is that everyone’s always wondering what’s next.
“We function first as a community and as a space for people of our heritage to come together,” Colón said. “The second functionality is a leadership organization.”
This year, Colón is the Senior Adviser for VAHS. This position is less demanding than his role as president last school year, so it has allowed Colón to be more involved in Café con Leche.
In addition to choreographing the merengue dance with de la Torres this year, he is also dancing in the Cuban salsa and bachata.
After graduating this May with a degree in sociology, Colón will be taking a gap year and working with Americorps in its City Year program in New York City. He plans on taking the GRE and LSAT exams as he takes time to figure out what we wants to do with his future.
“Something I’ve noticed about being at Vanderbilt is that everyone’s always wondering what’s next,” Colón said. “So I think my mantra for this next year is… I’m here in this moment and it doesn’t matter if I don’t have a next step to step on… I have time to make those next steps for myself and taking that time to like move forward is really great.”
Community has always been central in Justin Colón’s life- from growing up in a large Puerto Rican family to joining VAHS. As a senior, he is excited to end his time in VAHS with Café con Leche this weekend.
VAHS is hosting Café con Leche this Friday, March 18 in Langford Auditorium at 7pm. Tickets are $10 for the show and $15 for the show and dinner, which is 4-6pm the the Student Life Center Ballroom.