A Road Map to Their Future: What Latino Students Need to Graduate

Laura J. Cortez, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25, 2011

I can vividly remember the day I first stepped foot on the University of Texas-Pan American campus to begin my dissertation research on first-generation Mexican-American college students. Classes had just started and Spirit Week was in full swing. As I walked around campus, my senses went into overdrive. Students were excitedly walking to class, chatting in groups, and lounging around the campus. I could not put my finger on the overwhelming sense of excitement or comfort I felt. And then it suddenly hit me: Almost every student who passed by looked like me and was speaking Spanish.

I was home.

I was born in San Benito, Tex., a small town on the Mexican border. There I learned to embrace my life as both a Mexican and an American. I was raised in a predominately Hispanic community, where I learned to speak Spanish at a young age and where “day care” meant spending time at my grandma’s house with all of my cousins. I was the first college graduate in my family, and went on to pursue a doctorate in higher-education administration at the University of Texas at Austin. I understand firsthand the obstacles many first-generation Latino students face, and over the past four years have dedicated my research to learning about their experiences, specifically at Hispanic-serving institutions in Texas, and what helps such students succeed in college.

The designation “Hispanic-serving” applies to nonprofit colleges where full-time undergraduate enrollment is at least 25 percent Hispanic. I chose Pan American, which has 19,000 students, because of its high Latino enrollment and large number of graduates. (In 2010 it ranked third among colleges nationwide that awarded the most bachelor’s and master’s degrees.) It is located in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the fastest growing–and poorest–regions in the United States, according to U.S. Census data from 2010. Despite the area’s economic conditions, Hispanic students at Pan American are consistently doing well, and more important, they are graduating.

For my dissertation I wanted to learn what factors most helped Latino students obtain a degree. While I interviewed faculty and administrators, I especially wanted to give a voice to students–single mothers, transfer students, working adults, campus leaders, and those who juggled multiple roles. Throughout my study, Latino students repeatedly identified certain tools that helped them succeed and graduate–tools that could be useful to a wide range of colleges. They include:

A campus climate that values and validates their culture. This was critical to students, who believe they do best when they feel at home. With the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, more Latinos are expected to attend college, and it is imperative that they feel welcomed and supported. Administrators can accomplish this by deliberately analyzing how their institutional missions are serving Latinos. “I think the important thing for the university, any school or any place for that matter, is to have events, lessons, foods, or lectures that can relate to the culture that they are serving,” Marc, a 26-year-old student who spent four years working before attending college, told me.

Pan-American, for example, has built an on-site day-care center to assist students who are parents. For many young mothers, the center provides crucial support that allows them to continue their education. Academically, Pan-American encourages more Hispanics to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Once a year it hosts the Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week, which brings together nationally known speakers and students from all over the Rio Grande Valley. Sara, a 22-year-old student, told me, “I think a university that provides these types of events is reaching out and actually helping more Hispanics reach their goal to graduate and get a degree.”

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  • Anonymous

    According to a Mexican born translator and teacher’s aide I know, millions of Mexican children don’t go to school even for 1st grade.

    The reason is simple. The schools are in town. The families are out on those hardscrabble farms. There are no school buses.

    The families do not have cars.

    So the kids can’t get to whatever poor excuse for a school there is.

    So now the American taxpayer is expected to make up for thousands of years of ignorance and IQs in the 80’s in 20 years.

    Insanity rules America.

  • Anonymous

    “I think the important thing for the university, any school or any place for that matter, is to have events, lessons, foods, or lectures that can relate to the culture that they are serving,”

    Well, well, well, a student recruited in the name of Diversity makes an argument against it, and with searing logic.

  • Anonymous

    They should go back to mexico if they want to live somewhere their culture is valued and validated

  • Question Diversity

    Are there any college or university campi which values and validates white American culture? The answer is that there are extremely few that do, and the few that seem to aren’t explicitly doing so, they genuflect to some sort of “conservative” or religious mindset, in which case, they’re only accidentally white. So why are white college graduation rates higher than all other racial groups on campi which don’t value and validate their culture?

  • CDE

    That’s funny. I thought college was a place to go to embrace diversity and be exposed to all different kinds of people. Now I see that perhaps that’s not the case, at least as it concerns hispanics. They want a place that values THEIR culture and everybody speaks spanish. If they want to feel at home, perhaps Monterrey or Juarez would fit the bill.

  • Epiales

    HHCU? Historically Hispanic Colleges & Universities? Coming soon…

    “Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week”

    How are the subjects of engineering, science, and technology different in the Hispanic world?

    Why do Hispanics need “to have events, lessons, foods, or lectures that can relate to the culture” in order to study calculus?

    The realm of academia is becoming increasingly bizarre.

  • Flaxen-headed Strumpet

    “I think a university that provides these types of events is reaching out and actually helping more Hispanics reach their goal to graduate and get a degree.”– Sara

    Tell me Sara (in Jack Nicholson sneer face), are there students who graduate and don’t get a degree?

  • dhb

    anyone just catch the opening for MNF on espn? the theme song was sung half in spanish and the teams names were displayed in spanish on the screen to celebrate hispanic heritage month.

  • Anonymous

    “What Latino Students Need to Graduate”

    How about several thousand more years of Evolution? Enough time to finally breed the tribalistic, heart-eating, anti-intellectual Aztec out of them. Any program intending to bring hispanic academic performance up to European levels must be measured not in years or decades, but in millennia. Those people have a LOT of catching up to do.

    “With the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, more Latinos are expected to attend college”

    Well I can’t imagine any good reason why, since only a small fraction of them possess an IQ that stretches into the triple digits.

    Unless perhaps you’re talking about the Ronald McDonald College of Hamburgerology; or a degree in Lawn Mowing or Pool Cleaning.

  • Jean-Jacques

    If you are interested in the reaction of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s readers, click on the “original article” site and read their comments. There you will find an interesting mixture of pro- and anti-ethnic accommodation in higher education. Keep in mind that the Chronicle has a long tradition of supporting and aggressively promoting multiculturalism and politically correct solutions to difficult social problems.

  • Anonymous

    You know most of the teachers are latinos there, and the whites are leftists. Everyone gets an A or a B.

  • Istvan

    They only ever talk about graduating and getting a degree. What about actually learning soemthing? That doesn’t seem to be important when it comes to latino/black education.

  • ArizonaInsurgent

    “A campus climate that values and validates their culture.” That’s exactly what White kids need!

  • AvgDude

    If someone ever wanted to lay down a plan for a guaranteed future of perpetual warfare and civil strife, then this would be a perfect way to do it. Try to divide a country exactly down the middle by language and culture. What’s going to happen when half this country only speaks spanish and the other half only speaks English? And they’re all physically mixed up geographically? War.

  • sbuffalonative

    Let’s play a game called, Spot the Racist.

    Read the following two quotes and see if you can Spot the Racist:

    Person A:

    “And then it suddenly hit me: Almost every student who passed by looked like me and was speaking Spanish.

    I was home.

    I was born in San Benito, Tex., a small town on the Mexican border.”

    Person B:

    “And then it suddenly hit me: Almost every student who passed by looked like me and was speaking English.

    I was home.

    I was born in Buffalo, New York, a small city on the Canadian border.”

  • Jeddermann.

    “They want a place that values THEIR culture and everybody speaks spanish”

    Exactly. And too they only recreate here is the U.S. what their parents were trying to get away from when they left Mexico. Enjoy your culture and YOUR people to your hearts content, but do it there and not HERE!

  • Anonymous

    This article is propaganda. Pure fantasy except on the selling of how great the Hispanic culture is and the whites should pay. Seriously, Hispanic growth should be seriously limited. They are not the future of this country but rather the reverse. This country is still trying to cope with black problems and now there is another huge underclass with similar problems being allowing in without restraint. The survival of this country greatly depends on the quality of the population that is let in. Unfortunately, this country has allowed itself to be bound by the make believe badge of not wanting to be perceive as “racists”. This one word “racism” has derailed this country off it tracks in the search for truth that not all races are created equal which Thomas Jefferson long ago observed.

  • Lonestar Rebel

    ‘A campus climate that values and validates their culture. This was critical to students, who believe they do best when they feel at home. With the rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, more Latinos are expected to attend college, and it is imperative that they feel welcomed and supported.’

    There you have it folks. Mexicans don’t and never will assimilate into American culture. Even generational Mexicans never loose their affinity and loyalty for Mexico, but we are expected to accept this. After all, haven’t they been led to believe, as have most European Americans that our country is a NATION OF IMMIGRANTS and would be better named CLUB INTERNATIONAL USA. Wouldn’t they just be better off returning to Mexico and studying there where they will feel more at home?

    God forbid our future when these new scholars gain real economic and political power.

  • Kingoldby

    ” I could not put my finger on the overwhelming sense of excitement or comfort I felt. And then it suddenly hit me: Almost every student who passed by looked like me and was speaking Spanish.”

    So, how about this…..?

    ” I could not put my finger on the overwhelming sense of excitement or comfort I felt. And then it suddenly hit me: Almost every student who passed by looked like me and was speaking English.”

    Still ok?

  • Anonymous

    Get ready for the next one: forcing American schoolchildren to take Spanish language in school so Hispanic teachers can get hired.