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A Culture of Family And College

As Hispanic women balance family values and responsibilities with the ambition to attend college, admissions counselors are providing them with culturally sensitive retention tools.

For the past three years, Rosa Hernandez, an admissions counselor at the University of California, San Diego, has traveled to college fairs all over the nation to recruit students. As a Latina she feels she can connect with young Hispanic women and convince them of the importance of a college degree. But there are pockets of the country, particularly rural areas, where she encounters cultural resistance to higher education for young Hispanic women from immigrant families.

Hernandez asks the students where they see themselves studying and going to school. It doesn’t take long for Hispanic students’ hopeful dispositions to be dashed by the excuses pouring out of parents’ mouths like concrete to create a mental barrier to their academic pursuits.

“I hear: ‘Oh, I don’t want to leave home. Oh, I can’t afford it; I might as well just work,’” says Hernandez, recounting what the students tell her. From the parents she hears: “‘It costs too much dinero. I can’t afford for my child to live in the dorms.’ Financially, parents do not see it as an investment but as a cost. I really have to work hard at breaking those myths.”

“That stereotype is still there for Latinas in those areas,” she adds. “It’s that machista attitude that if you let the daughter go, she will end up pregnant. It does happen, but not just to Latinas.”

While the number of Hispanic women enrolling in college continues to increase, these cultural barriers still exist.

In a comprehensive study published in 2001 by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, entitled “¡Si, Se Puede! Yes We Can, Latinas in School,” Dr. Angela Ginorio, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Washington, and researcher Michelle Huston use national data to explore the experiences of Hispanic women in the U.S. educational system.

“Latinas may find that family, community, school and peer expectations are more discordant for them than for girls of Anglo, middleclass culture,” the authors wrote. “Family expectations that children — especially daughters — stay relatively close to home during and after high school conflict somewhat with a prevailing trend in middle-class culture for successful students to go away to college for four years.”

A study published this year by Dr. Sue Sy, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and co-authored with graduate student Jessica Romero, entitled “Family Responsibilities Among Latina College Students From Immigrant Families,” reinforces the earlier study by Ginorio and Huston by looking at a smaller population in Southern California.

The findings of the study — based on interviews with 20 first- and second-generation Hispanic women ages 18 to 29 in Southern California — underscored three main themes regarding the role of family responsibility and Hispanic women’s college success and retention. “Participants emphasized the importance of developing self-sufficiency to support the family, the voluntary nature of their financial contributions and their role as a surrogate parent for younger family members,” according to the study.

“Providing this information to high school and college counselors is a basic first step to smoothing the pathway to college,” the study said.

Culturally Sensitive Recruiting

Sy and other scholars like Dr. Jeanett Castellanos, director for the Social Science Academic Resource Center in the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, say some universities have developed recruitment and retention programs to address these cultural issues facing Hispanic women in particular, and Hispanics in general.

Recruiting for UC San Diego, Hernandez adds her own touch. She shares with the prospective students and their parents how she was able to convince her parents to grant her the independence to pursue her dream. Instead of a “Take Your Daughters to Work Day,” Hernandez arranged her own “Take Your Parents to College Day,” where they followed her through a full day of class, work and study time at the library until closing late at night. They saw first-hand their daughter’s purpose for studying at a university.

Sy’s study points out that “because a larger percentage of Latinas have parents with little or no college experience, the young women who enroll in four-year programs are further at risk of experiencing conflict between the expectations of their home and school conflicts.”

As the first of five sisters to venture into higher education, Hernandez graduated from San Diego State University in 2005 with two bachelor’s degrees — in psychology and in Chicano studies. The 27-year-old is currently pursuing a master’s degree at San Diego State and intends to get her doctorate in education.

But more important, Hernandez paved the way for her younger sisters to push the boundaries even further out of San Diego to other four-year institutions. One sister will transfer to the University of California, Los Angeles, next year and another attends St. Mary’s College in Northern California. The youngest sister, 13, has aspirations to attend Harvard University.

“My parents love that my little sister wants that,” says Hernandez, whose parents were both undocumented immigrants from Mexico and had less than a high school education when they came to the United States. “Their mindset has changed 180 degrees. Now they talk to other parents in the community about letting go [of their daughters].”

From her personal and professional experience, Hernandez believes that Hispanics can counter the cultural barriers by educating one person at a time to the benefits of giving Hispanic women the opportunity for educational advancement.

Since the mid-1990s the presence of Hispanic women in higher education has grown and surpassed that of Hispanic men. However, both are still underrepresented in higher education. According to the American Council on Education’s “23nd Annual Status Report on Minorities in Higher Education,” the growth in Hispanic college enrollment has surpassed every other ethnic or racial group. Between 1995 and 2005, there respectively was a 73.7 percent and 55.6 percent increase in enrollment of Hispanic women and men. Just over 1 million Hispanic women were enrolled in college in the fall of 2005. While the enrollment numbers have improved over the years, the college participation rate for Hispanics ages 18 to 24 is the lowest of any group. The percentage of college-aged Hispanics enrolled in college grew from 18 percent in 1987 to 25 percent in 2006, showing little improvement as compared to the growth rate of the general Hispanic population. Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, has said many Latinas have overcome that resistance for them to go away to get a college education by attending local institutions. “They can still be close to home and get a degree …We’re seeing kind of a multiplier. Women are being more educated and they’re being encouraged to go.”

Creating Pathways

But the growing numbers of Hispanics in higher education also have faced additional challenges, some familial, which have been identified in several studies by male and female Hispanic scholars across the nation. The gains that Latinas like Hernandez and others have made in higher education often are coupled with personal sacrifice and conflict within their cultural and family traditions.

Sy says her study stressed that the strong connection to family, which may prevent some Hispanic women from entering college, is also the motivator to success once they do enter the universities.

 “The close connection to family and sense of obligation to move the family up the socioeconomic ladder can be a source of motivation for them to complete their degrees. However, the specific behavioral demands may interfere with the time students otherwise would devote to their educational endeavors,” Sy says.

While the immigrant experience differs from coast to coast and for Hispanics from different countries of origin, the responsibility and family pressures feel the same.

Philadelphia native Jackie Beramendi, a 21- year-old senior at Temple University, feels that her success in college is directly tied to the sacrifices her single mother made in immigrating to the United States from Peru.

Beramendi’s mother “wouldn’t even entertain the idea that I wasn’t going,” says Beramendi, who will graduate in December 2009 with a degree in advertising. “She would tell me, ‘I worked so hard to get here. Everyone in Peru is depending on you. You are our legacy.’ She reminds me almost every day, ‘I came here to get you a better education.’ Everything I do is because of that.” For Beramendi, it’s important to know that when she visits home, which includes a phone call to the rest of the family in Peru, she is also influencing her adolescent female cousins. She knows that their desire to go to college has already been awakened by what they have seen her accomplish.

“Many of our Latinas today are creating history, developing pathways that have not been walked through,” says Castellanos, who has done extensive research on cultural incongruities that Latinas face in college.

“Some Latinas in the 1970s didn’t have children and pursued grad school and became great professionals,” she says. “Now you are looking at a mass of Latinas — even though they are not coming through in herds — pursuing those opportunities. Now you are also seeing the sibling effect. My sister did it; I can do it too. There is something to be said about these Latinas creating a new culture and for what it means to be a modern Latina in contemporary society.”

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