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Hispanic-serving Leaders Give Hope to a New Wave of Students

Recently becoming the nation’s largest minority, Hispanics are absorbing the academic limelight as Latino youth establish their dominance in college classrooms across the country.

According to Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine’s 2013 report “Top 100 Schools for Hispanic Students,” more than 2.5 million Hispanics were enrolled in nonprofit institutions in 2011-2012. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that nearly seven out of 10 Hispanic high school graduates in 2012 enrolled in college, outnumbering that of their White counterparts. Over half of these new college-goers choose to attend Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which the Higher Education Act defines as nonprofit degree-granting institutions with full-time undergraduate enrollments of at least 25 percent Hispanic.

While these numbers illustrate a statistical breakthrough in Hispanics’ desire to become academically astute and socially progressive, the task of cultivating the necessities required to recruit, retain and promote these aspiring college graduates can largely be attributed to the dedication of those employed at Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

Under the advisement of founding President Dr. Shirley Reed, South Texas College was established 20 years ago as a community college dedicated to serving the needs of Hispanics and has propelled in recent years due to its dual-enrollment program, which has become a local attraction for high school students.

“Our goal was to create a college-going culture in our region,” says Reed. “Going to college was just not an opportunity for most of our families, so we believe that, by starting students early in high school, that we will plant the seed that everybody can and should go to college.”

That seed has grown to serve a 96 percent Hispanic student population, and, in 2012, approximately 12,000 students from 68 high schools were admitted into the dual-enrollment program.

“We are learning from this program that success breeds success,” Reed says. “When students are successful in high school taking college classes, they want to take more, and we have large numbers who actually earn a two-year associate degree while in high school.”

While more than 51 percent of Hispanic students choose to attend two-year universities like South Texas, Reed’s goal is to ensure that her scholars have a plan after South Texas. Incoming students in the program receive strategic counseling and devise degree plans that outline if they will enter the workforce or pursue a bachelor’s program after receiving their federally funded associate degree.

In Orange County, the University of California, Fullerton, is also a proprietor of engaging with youth, starting as early as elementary school.

Dawn Valencia, Fullerton’s director of university outreach, says that creating substantial programming in the community is one of her department’s greatest strengths.

“Instead of us saying, ‘hey this is what you need,’ we work with the community to see what makes sense,” says Valencia. “We are not just located in Orange County; we are a part of Orange County.”

Through programming catered to college-preparedness, Valencia meets students with dreams of pursuing degrees, as well as those who believe that attending college is not the most logical step after high school.

“We’re in the business of providing hope,” says Valencia. “We get the opportunity to inspire students, and we get a chance help them answer questions that they didn’t even know they had.”

Fullerton’s presence in the community has rendered its student population 33 percent Hispanic.

Having benefited from projects like those that she runs at Fullerton, Valencia finds the most enjoyment in her career through building an even greater generation of successful minorities.

Urbina Marcel shares this sentiment of reciprocity at his alma mater, Florida International University—Miami’s first and only public research university, offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to students—61 percent of whom are Hispanic. As an admissions coordinator, Marcel’s workload includes participating in college fairs for recruitment, managing paperwork for incoming students and preparing admitted students for orientation before the first day of classes.

But while admissions are the first step in collegiate matriculation, university culture is often a large component of student retention. Having spent a lot of time on campus while obtaining his bachelor’s degree in business management and master’s degree in engineering, Marcel can speak personally to the value of student diversity at Florida International.

“It’s very comfortable to be [among] other Hispanics, but it goes beyond that,” says Marcel, who says that his exposure to different cultures at Florida International made a significant impact in his education by being able to derive varying perspectives during his classroom studies.

“This is something that we value that attributes to education as a student and it allows you to take that with you professionally,” he says.

In addition to classroom experiences that afford social and professional growth, a practical tool for student retention can also be found in opportunities outside of campus.

Valencia points to internship programs, which are required for most of Fullerton’s students. “It’s just not the academics but applying the skills that students learn from their textbooks.”

Through internships, Fullerton students gain insight into their career paths before completing their degrees. If they do well, they may get hired for the job, or at the very least, are given a reference for other employment opportunities.

The ultimate task for leaders of Hispanic-Serving Institutions is ensuring that, ultimately, all roads lead to graduation.

“We’ve made real progress in giving students from all backgrounds access to a college education, but we haven’t finished the all-important job of helping more students earn a university degree,” says Mildred Garcia, president at Fullerton, in an op-ed piece published in the Orange Country Register.

Specifically, Garcia addresses her concern for the high volume of college-goers who are attending school part time, transferring between institutions, working full-time jobs and returning as older adults for training.

“For many of these students, who must juggle employment, family responsibilities and financial pressures, life often gets in the way of a college degree,” she adds.

To that end, Garcia laid out items on her agenda, including meeting with local college presidents to establish an agreement to provide a seamless transfer process for community college students entering the university and attending a conference to engage in creating action-oriented conversation addressing the Latino achievement gap in Orange County.

Collaboratively, the labor of recruiting, retaining and promoting Hispanic students can render large returns for the nation’s economy. In 2010, purchasing power among U.S. Hispanics added up to $1 trillion and is projected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2015.

Moreover, Hispanic graduates continue to perpetuate success in their own communities. In Orange County, many Fullerton students choose to remain close to home, and often, recent graduates are in the position to employ current students.

In McAllen Texas, there is a demand for professionals in nursing, allied health fields and the oil and gas industries—South Texas College graduates go on to fill those voids, often earning more than $60,000 a year with two years of college.

Successes like these keep leaders like Reed stepping up to the plate each year to cater to Hispanic students.
“My proudest moment is every year at commencement when I get a chance to shake the hands of four or five thousand students who have earned a college degree and they never thought it was possible,” she says. “I see the tears in the students’ eyes and happiness in the families—it just makes the whole year worthwhile to see that excitement and that great feeling of doing something that nobody thought was possible.”

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