Latinos put new demands on colleges

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Maria Hernandez was a senior in high school, she had top grades, a world of talent - and, like many first-generation Latino Americans, no expectation of going to college.

"I was already working for a bank and I thought, 'Well, I'll just keep working full time and help support my family,' " says Ms. Hernandez. But a teacher persuaded her to send out applications at the last minute. She plans on graduating from Chicago's DePaul University next spring.

For many Latino Americans who excel in high school, college is not a foregone conclusion - family and financial concerns often come first.

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But that is changing. According to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., by 2015, the number of Latinos entering college will have increased by 1 million, surpassing African-Americans as the second-largest racial or ethnic student group. Educators worry that colleges and universities have been caught off guard, and could fail to meet Latino students' most vital needs, ranging from faculty mentors to courses in Latino studies.

"The issue of the influx of Hispanic students is one that has been long neglected," says Jamie Merisotis, director of the Institute of Higher Education Policy in Washington. "We've known for a long time that a coming tidal wave driven by Hispanics was on the horizon, but colleges and universities aren't ready for it."

As institutions scramble to retool their student services, educators are realizing that the path to diversity on college campuses is dotted with roadblocks.

Set among rows of brownstone apartments on Chicago's North Side, DePaul has long been committed to enrolling Chicago's first-generation students.

With Chicago's Latino population booming, and DePaul's student body following suit, the school has responded aggressively, launching a mentorship program for students with local Latino business leaders, a Latino peer adviser program, and new courses in Latino studies.

The university also has been commended for working with Latino high school students before they enroll in college. The multiyear effort lets them attend DePaul on weekends to build their comfort level with campus life.

"We've always had a symbiotic relationship with the city," says DePaul's president, the Rev. John Minogue. "So we do our best to reach out to Chicago's students and give them a knowledge base of what college life is all about here."

Despite these efforts, Hernandez still cites DePaul's lack of faculty diversity - 24 Latinos out of 504 professors - as a serious problem for her peers.

"There just isn't any diversity in the faculty. I'm not saying a white male cannot encourage me up there, but it would make us really proud to have a Latino to look up to at the head of the classroom."

The problem is not unique to DePaul: Latinos account for only 2.4 percent of all instructional faculty nationwide. Dr. Rafaela Weffer, DePaul's associate vice president for academic affairs, says it might be generations before Latinos have proportional representation in faculty.

"The Latino population is the youngest in the United States. They are underrepresented at most levels in education," Weffer says. "And Latino families are generally very strong. Women students in particular would be more reluctant to weaken the family's cohesion in a way that might come with pursuing a PhD."

But faculty diversity isn't the only challenge. Since the mid-1970s, when African-American students became more vocal on college campuses, colleges and universities also have been called on to broaden their curriculum and student services.

Many of these efforts are still in their nascent stages. Of the 318 active Division I institutions in the country, only 191 have programs in Latin American Studies. Ernesto Nieto, director of the National Hispanic Institute in Maxwell, Texas, an organization that helps Latino high school students get into college, says schools need to take such curriculum more seriously.

"There's the presumption that Latinos want to be more like whites...," Nieto says. "Many want to go back to their communities. They want courses and internships in college that relate to their culture."

Herb Ross, associate vice president for student affairs at Boston University, helps coordinate his school's student services. He's seen the demands of his job change dramatically in his 23 years.

"Twenty years ago when you said minority, it implied you meant a black student," he says. "But over the past five years ... Latino students have been very vocal. We heard their cry and responded to it."

Boston University recently hired a Latino to co-direct its Office of Multicultural Affairs, and has tried to include Latin American traditions in its activities.

But Julio Catto, a junior at BU, doesn't believe Mr. Ross's office is doing enough.

"Student services here tend to focus on African-Americans," he says. "You see cases of Latino students outnumbering African-Americans 2 to 1. But we still receive nowhere near the same resources."

While institutions like BU strive to offer equal resources to minority students, educators believe they walk a fine line between providing support and fostering segregation. "We're trying to deemphasize differences in these programs, as [we] don't want to polarize students," Ross says. Partly because of this, Ross believes minority students at BU now think of themselves as a unified group.

M. Rick Turner, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs (OAAA) at the University of Virginia, has helped the school gain the highest retention rate of African-American students in public education. He says programs for minorities must address unspoken concerns.

"We're talking about races that have traditionally been locked out of this institution," he says. "White parents look at this as a natural step in their children's lives. We want African-American students and parents to feel 'this is my university.' "

Because only 45 percent of Latinos enrolled in Division 1 institutions eventually graduate, educators believe programs like the OAAA need to be bolstered.

"We have studies showing that social integration determines whether a student will stay or drop out," says Merisotis. "Programs like mentoring ... help make all the difference in this."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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