After 25 years working in finance, Ricardo DeLeon ’86 knew it was time for change. “I had decided to retire from corporate America and start a second career doing something more fulfilling,” he says.
That’s when a friend told him of a position at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Hispanic Americans seeking higher education. “Once I found out about it, I thought it would be a great step,” DeLeon says.
DeLeon is now the COO of the fund, and though he has had the role for just four months, his days are hectic. “I cover quite a few functions: finance, IT, HR, scholarship processing, career services,” he says. “I pretty much make sure that the office is running.”
The role is in sharp contrast with DeLeon’s previous life. Prior to coming to the HSF, he served as vice president and corporate controller of Duracell, and before that he held multiple senior-level positions at Procter & Gamble.
For DeLeon, breaking into the nonprofit world was the culmination of his long-held beliefs about the importance of education for Hispanic and immigrant communities. “A good portion of our recipients are first-generation, and getting a good education can be life changing for folks,” he says. “Not only for them, but for their families.”
DeLeon, who went to high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, speaks from experience, having been the first in his family to leave home for college. “I really appreciate that the HSF is making that journey easier for other people,” he says.
In addition to his position with the fund, DeLeon also serves as president of the Association of Latino Princeton Alumni (ALPA). “I got involved in ALPA because I wanted to make it easier for today’s students who might be coming from a similar experience,” he says. “The HSF has been a great complement to it, in that now it’s beyond Princeton.”
DeLeon reflects on his Princeton experience as motivation for his involvement with both organizations. “[College] was very difficult,” he recalled. “Whereas there were some really good memories and really good friends that came out of it, there were many times when I felt underprepared, or didn’t feel like I belonged. And a lot of that was driven by the cultural and economic differences at Princeton versus where I came from.”
To help foster a sense of community for Latino students, the HSF hosts several conferences throughout the year to connect them with Latino leaders. “What the HSF is really good at is addressing issues straight on, by giving folks financial aid number one, but number two, giving them the experiences of networking, of role models, of mentoring. That makes the experience a lot easier,” DeLeon says.
DeLeon believes this kind of community-building is essential now more than ever. “Technology allows people to stay in touch and stay connected with their backgrounds, with their homes,” he says. “But [college] can culturally be a significantly different experience, and combined with today’s politics, it’s difficult.”
DeLeon’s advice for aspiring and current Latino college students is simple. “Keep looking forward towards a better future, for yourself and others,” he says. “It’s amazing where you can find yourself.”