Five College’s Maria Cartagena receives Holyoke community leadership award

Maria Cartagena, a Holyoke resident and Five College’s community partnerships coordinator, has been named the 2013 Latino Scholarship Association's Carlos Vega Community Champion. The award, named for a longtime community activist, recognizes local residents for their leadership and service to the community.

“Maria  was selected because of her long and unwavering commitment to the development and empowerment of the Latino community in Holyoke,” said Madelaine Marquez, a board member of the scholarship association and coordinator of education studies at Hampshire College.

Cartagena moved to Holyoke from New York City with her family as a teenager and began community organizing as a volunteer while still in high school. Noting that Cartagena is a graduate of the Holyoke alternative education program the Care Center, Marquez said that Cartagena “inspired others at the Care Center, and then worked under Carlos' tutelage as a community organizer.”

Community development became her passion, and Cartagena worked for several Holyoke-based social service organizations in her career. She was hired in 2011 as Five College’s community partnerships coordinator, based in downtown Holyoke. Cartagena works with VISTA volunteers to support Holyoke Bound and Springfield Bound, programs that prepare Five College students for work with community groups in each of the cities. In addition, she helps the campuses explore opportunities for student placement, maintaining contacts with some 50 community partners.

Most recently Cartagena organized a college admissions night at which local teens met with Five College admissions representatives to learn more about higher education opportunities. “Maria is currently working to build a strong and lasting bridge between the colleges and the community through quality community-based partnerships,” said Marquez.

Cartagena joins several other Community Champions who have been recognized by the Latino Scholarship Association since it formed some 15 years ago, establishing the first permanent, endowed scholarship program for Latinos in western Massachusetts. It has now awarded more than 100 scholarships to high school graduates.

A tireless advocate of social justice in the city of Holyoke, Carlos Vega served as executive director of Nueva Esperanza, the Holyoke-based affordable housing and community action organization. He also co-founded dozens of other community organizations in Holyoke, including the Latino Scholarship Association. Vega died in April, 2012, and the scholarship association honored his work by adding his name to the Community Championship award.