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In the Heights of Higher Education

For the new year, I finally went to see the musical “In the Heights” in New York. “In the Heights” won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical and its storyline focuses on Latinos and college-going.

 The story revolves around a small community in Washington Heights, N.Y., where various Latinos all live in harmony. One of their own gets into Stanford University and all in the community sing of their pride and firm belief that she will change the world. Unfortunately, the college student faces many challenges. While she has an academic scholarship and support from her parents, she still has to work two jobs to afford her books and living expenses. She knows her parents sacrificed to support her and decided not to ask them for more assistance to cover these additional expenses. Beyond financial challenges, the social and cultural changes of moving from New York to California held additional challenges for her to overcome. Adjusting to such a different environment and balancing work with her classes resulted in academic probation and the loss of her scholarship. Without the scholarship, she can no longer afford to attend the university and she’s returning home to tell her community she’s dropping out of college.

 In many ways, the story is representative of many Latinos who go to college. The challenge of adapting to different social and cultural norms is real. Several Latino students in focus groups I conducted across the country shared their experiences of having enrolled at selective institutions far from home. Although they were high-achieving students with scholarships, they had returned home and transferred to nearby institutions to continue their education. The cultural isolation and lack of social support were major factors in their return. One student even noted the only people that looked like her at the campus she had attended worked in the cafeteria and in maintenance. To come from a supportive community and then be thrust into an environment where the support and understanding do not exist are real challenges too often overlooked by institutions trying to improve Latino student retention.

 The financial challenges the student in the musical faces are also real for Latinos in higher education. Many of us depend on financial aid to pay for college, and too often the financial assistance does not cover all of our expenses. Again, in focus groups with Latino students across the country, students often shared their challenges in balancing college costs with limited financial aid. As a result, many Latino students were working while enrolled to support themselves through college.

While there are many challenges of Latinos going to college, I think it is also important to highlight one reality in the musical that too often is not understood outside the Latino community. It was refreshing to see the recognition that the Latino student represented her entire community. Her success would also be their success. As with more and more Latinos in college today, the main character and her family find a way to overcome the challenges of college-going to help her return to college and accomplish her (and their) dreams of a college education.

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Deborah A. Santiago is vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education.

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