A search for diversity

The University of Northern Iowa has struggled to draw minorities to its largely white campus. So this year, it made Hispanic students from Texas an eye-catching offer.

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To Leslie Prieto, life this fall has the dreamlike feel of a Cinderella story.

The Texas native couldn't have easily anticipated landing on the lush green campus at the University of Northern Iowa. Nor would she have expected to be one of only about 660 minority students on a campus of nearly 14,000.

But as part of a bold experiment in boosting campus diversity, UNI persuaded her and 16 other Hispanic students from a San Antonio junior college to trade the sun-baked vistas of south Texas for this largely Caucasian corner of the Midwest, complete with its bone-chilling winters.

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To do that required a very big carrot. And UNI was prepared to offer one: a full ride - grants for tuition and room and board - to attend the highly ranked, four-year university.

"I never thought it would be a reality," she says. "When I heard that I might be coming here, it was too good to be true. My father couldn't believe it. We just didn't have the money."

Diversity is an increasingly high priority on many American campuses. Despite recent rollbacks in affirmative-action programs, many schools still cite a racially mixed student body as a key part of the educational experience they offer.

UNI's is one of the most unusual and ambitious campus diversity plans in the United States. It's also part of a much broader statewide mandate to diversify Iowa's workforce and bolster its economy by luring new people, especially minorities.

But achieving that can be difficult, particularly for public schools in states with little diversity in the general population.

It has been a tough problem for UNI. Yet two years ago, part of the answer occurred to financial aid director Roland Carrillo and assistant admissions director Juanita Wright - both Hispanic.

Each had lived in San Antonio years earlier. It seemed suddenly obvious to try harder to tap San Antonio's large Hispanic population through Palo Alto College - a two-year institution there.

UNI already had an agreement with Palo Alto to fully transfer college credits. Yet Palo Alto students hardly used it.

High costs, long distances

The key barriers: cost and family priorities. Most Palo Alto students could not afford UNI. Even if they could, their tradition-bound parents were unlikely to let them go so far from home, both Mr. Carrillo and Ms. Wright say.

"We value diversity and we've tried for years to increase our minority enrollment," Carrillo says. "Now we have this golden pipeline [from San Antonio]." He's quick to add that a range of UNI students receive grants as part of the diversity effort.

"We're recruiting in all markets," he says. "The institution is just taking extra steps to make diversity happen on this campus - and this is an example."

But opening that "pipeline" required two radical steps. In 1998, UNI plunged ahead, announcing that any Palo Alto student with good grades soon to complete a two-year associate's degree could apply to transfer to UNI. If accepted, they would get a full ride akin to what top athletes might expect.

It was an enticing offer to students for whom the $1,000 tuition at Palo Alto was steep. Even nearby University of Texas, at about $3,000 a year, was beyond the reach of many of them. UNI was offering to cover all of the out-of-state student costs, totaling more than $12,000.

Yet that year, there was just one taker for UNI's offer. Carrillo and Wright quickly decided money alone was not enough. The parents of those close-knit families had to see for themselves that their kids were in good hands and a nondiscriminatory learning environment.

So last fall, Carrillo and Wright told an audience of parents and students in the Palo Alto gym that the university would also pay transportation and hotel costs to bring any interested student - and a parent - to visit UNI for a week.

Even so, it was a tough sell.

"At first my father told me that nobody leaves the house until they get married," Janet Ramirez recalls. "They just weren't convinced. They were still, like, is this true? Can it be true?"

Eventually though, her father realized the offer was for real and that it might never come again.

"My dad was happy, but sad, too," Janet says. "There were tears in his eyes when he realized we were going, but he could see that this was our dream."

The school is doing everything it can to roll out the welcome mat - which may have contributed to the enrollment of 17 of the 22 students offered the deal.

Pressures amid the welcome

Yet the stark boldness of UNI's initiative has raised some eyebrows. No one underestimates the intense pressure the new students may confront.

"They face the obstacles all first-generation college students face," says Miguel Cejas, a research assistant with the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Being away from home is hard enough. But they are moving from Texas, where the population of Latinos is much higher than in the Midwest. So you have potential for the whole culture clash."

If they become socially isolated "it's going to play out academically," Mr. Cejas warns.

Still, he and others laud the effort to target Hispanics. Even though the overall number of Hispanics attending college has grown along with the expanding college population, the percentage of those going directly on to college has lagged behind that of other minority groups and whites.

"Hispanics are not catching up with rest of the population," says Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in San Antonio. "On the one hand, Hispanic attitudes toward college are changing for the better. We're moving in the right direction, but the gaps are actually increasing between Latinos and other groups."

The rate at which Hispanic high school graduates go immediately on to college has been stuck at about 50 percent nationally for the past 25 years, reports Thomas Mortenson, an Iowa-based higher education researcher. Other ethnic groups' rates have risen. For the past two years, this college-continuation rate for Hispanics has been about 15 percentage points below the rate for all students.

"This situation appears to have very rapidly deteriorated over the past five years," he reports. Making matters worse is a rise in the high school drop-out rate for Hispanics.

There are a few bright spots, though. Between 1987 and 1997, bachelor's degrees awarded to Hispanics rose to 5.5 percent of all such degrees conferred, up from 2.8 percent. By comparison, bachelor's degrees won by blacks rose to 8.3 percent from 5.9 percent, federal data show.

Cejas and Mr. Flores say the success or failure of UNI's new Hispanic students will depend largely on how much attention and resources the university devotes to making the experiment work.

"They are taking students who have made a conscious decision to succeed - and their families are behind them," Flores says.

"The university seems to be supporting them. All the basic ingredients are there."

Social safety net

Bringing on board a group of Hispanic students with a common bond - their Palo Alto experience - was always a key to UNI's plan. The hope is that a social safety net will develop from that.

So far, the students do indeed seem to be adapting with help from their buddies.

"I do see the other students always looking at us," says Dubelsa Barajas. "We're a little bit darker than them. My roommate is white and has green eyes. All of us [from San Antonio] have dark hair, dark eyes."

Still, she says, "it doesn't bother me, because I'm proud of being Hispanic. Also, I have friends. All of us [from San Antonio] are like a big family here, like brothers and sisters."

Denise Martinez and Esmeralda Rodriguez both left behind young daughters with their parents. Ms. Rodriguez talks by phone to her daughter daily. Ms. Martinez regrets being away from her daughter - but is determined to make good.

"I have to give my little girl a better life," she says. "My daughter is what keeps me going. With a four-year degree I'll be able to make more money. I miss her. But at least I have [roommate] Esmeralda to talk to."

Lunch circles

There are also early signs that despite the campus racial imbalance, the former Palo Alto students are already making friendships and an impact outside their own cultural circle.

Over a Friday lunch, eight former Palo Alto students sit together, chatting often in English, sometimes in Spanish, about the homecoming parade the next day. Together they plan to build a parade float dubbed "Panther Fiesta" to show off both their school spirit and Hispanic unity.

The "Hispanic table" is an interesting melange. Erineo "Eddy" Espinoza arrives wearing the school's purple and gold colors on his cap, shorts, and T-shirt. He introduces a new friend, Meggan Moeller. "The best thing about this place is the people," Mr. Espinoza says. "We've been together for a month and already we're like a family. But I'm finding it's just as much fun to meet other kids from around here."

Ms. Moeller concurs. "When the school said that all these people were from the same city, I thought, 'Wow, that's cool,' " she says. "This adds a different culture to the campus. You become more worldly and wise by seeing new points of view."

Sitting next to Ms. Prieto at lunch is Shauna Sedore, who grew up on a farm 35 miles south of here. Prieto shares with her a class in Latin American history and a budding friendship.

"I've never had a good friendship with a white person before," Prieto says. "She just said 'hi' in class and now we're like a team, asking all kinds of questions."

Studying hard

Friendships are important, but the focus is on staying on top of academic tasks. Prieto and the other 16 students are studying more than they ever have. In her chemistry class, Elissa Huerta hunkers down over a quiz in a large theater classroom with dozens of other students. She has studied hard for this quiz, and she's ready to turn it in before the professor asks for it.

For Espinoza, the workload has presented a new challenge - but one he's digging into with relish, one eye to the future. "The toughest thing about this place is getting the work done," Espinoza says.

"If I succeed, I'll be the first in my family to have a four-year degree. Then I want to get my law degree and help other Hispanic Americans. To do that I have to manage my time a lot more closely and work a lot harder than I did back home."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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