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.”