Since its founding five years ago, the UCF Puerto Rico Research Hub has strengthened the Central Florida Puerto Rican community through impactful research and initiatives benefiting the community as a whole and individual members — such as a Puerto Rican native who launched a bakery business in Central Florida.
Laura Figueroa completed the Hispanic Business Education and Training Program, funded by TD Charitable Foundation in partnership with UCF Global, which the PRRH is housed under. This initiative equips current or aspiring small business owners of Hispanic origin with essential information for operating a successful business through a free, 10-week program.
Figueroa is the owner of Cake Pastries and More, which operates out of her home. She completed the program in early 2022 and says it was an intense review of everything she needed to make her business thrive.
Figueroa is one of many success stories from the hub’s efforts so far. She is now a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce member and recently applied to her first commercial space.
“One of the biggest takeaways I had was that networking is the key to success, and that can be hard, especially for Spanish language natives,” Figueroa says. “Those leading the program provide you these connections and customers because they want to see you succeed.”
Director Fernando Rivera founded the hub in 2018 after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The natural disaster resulted in a surge of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, positioning the hub at the new epicenter of the Puerto Rican diaspora, with more than 1 million Puerto Ricans calling Florida home — according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 2019 report.
Rivera says one of the hub’s main objectives is conducting academic research to understand critical issues related to Puerto Ricans and communicate the results to appropriate scholars, communities, and government officials. In January 2023, they were awarded $500,000 in funding as a part of the FY2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act to expand the hub’s research capabilities.
An event celebrating the program’s fifth anniversary will take place from 6-8 p.m. at the UCF Puerto Rico Research Hub. Registration is required, and you can sign up to attend here.
“One of our main goals is providing opportunities for our students to engage in research, and this funding allows us to accomplish that,” Rivera says. “We were able to hire graduate and undergraduate students from UCF to participate in this project and impact the policy decisions that affect our community.”
This funding will allow the hub to conduct polls on crucial social and education issues relating to the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida. The project is in the beginning stages of implementation and is scheduled to conclude in 2025.
This year the business training program is being paired with a free community English program funded by Truist Foundation, aiming to provide more resources that fuel participants’ success.
“You finish this business training in Spanish since that is what you’re comfortable with, but your next step is English,” says Zoe Colon, senior advisor to the hub and director of UCF Global Community Initiatives. “We’re serving a certain niche, and we want to continue to encourage them to take the next step towards their career development, which is English proficiency.”
Figueroa says he believes that these initiatives led by organizations like UCF are the catalyst for the Hispanic community’s success in Central Florida.
“It’s important to give back to the community on every level — to provide these kinds of resources that allow those of us who are in the U.S. alone [and] want to succeed but feel lost,” Figueroa says. “It’s a beautiful mission; together, we are stronger. As fellow Hispanics, we are here to help each other succeed.”
Looking ahead, the hub aims to strengthen UCF’s scholarly capacity through partnerships. This includes co-publishing the online journal Revista Encuentros with the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras, focusing on themes like disasters, urban planning, agriculture, and sociopolitical issues for Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora. They’ll also increase polls, reports, public events, and sharing findings with officials in Puerto Rican population centers.
“We’re at the crossroads of sustaining the program beyond my expertise and preparing the next generation to take this on,” Rivera says. “Instead of celebrating five years, we aim to celebrate 100 years.”