Laura J. Cortez | The 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."
Academic programs that promote collaboration. Latino students consistently made the point that they thrive in supportive academic peer groups—particularly important at a commuter campus, where students have fewer chances to interact than at residential universities. Latinos are commonly raised in extended-family environments, and the peer groups provide a similar network of support and responsibility.
Education majors often cited an academic-cohort program in the School of Education in which the same groups of students meet in classes—called blocks—as a significant step in keeping them engaged and on track to graduation. Besides providing academic motivation, the program helps students develop friendships and connect with one another through mutual career goals.
Kayla, a 28-year-old commuter student and single mom, said: "When you start the Block program, you see the same people every day. Some of us carpool and we help each other that way. That sense of helping each other and reminding each other of when assignments are due is a good experience. You feel like you are just not here alone."
Academic-cohort programs are common in graduate education, but colleges should consider their long-term benefits for Latino undergraduates as well, especially in fields such as science, engineering, and math, subjects in which courses are sequenced and students can complete the requirements as a team.
Clear procedures to simplify the transfer process. Many Latino college students are first-generation, and have very little understanding of the college process. Unable to draw upon the knowledge of parents or peers, many experience trial by fire. As one Pan-American administrator said, "It is one thing to get them in the door, and it is another thing to ensure they graduate."
Because so many Latino students begin their education at community colleges—in Texas, that figure is over 60 percent—both two- and four-year colleges must help make the transition to four-year institutions seamless. The students I interviewed found the transfer process especially difficult when the burden of making sure they met course requirements fell mostly on their shoulders. Many agreed that the close collaboration between Pan-American and South Texas College, the local community college, made it possible for them to pursue their degrees.
A student who had transferred three times told me: "The one thing that helped me was my transfer adviser. She was the one who was responsible for making sure I had all the hours transferred over. She made sure that I had all the classes required ... and that I had the grades to be ready for it."
A well-articulated pathway to a degree. This was another institutional tool frequently mentioned by students. Pan-American advises all first-year students on their degree plans. Students found the degree plans most useful when they were repeatedly used during advising sessions throughout their four years. Degree plans are a key to success, constantly reminding students where they are going and what it will take to get there.
Strong faculty advising to help students make connections between degrees and careers. Latino students relied heavily on faculty members for career advice, and often considered them indispensable mentors who inspired them to continue their education. Colleges have a responsibility to train faculty, as well as students, about institutional policies. At Pan-American, new faculty members participate in a yearlong program that includes training on such issues as how to be culturally sensitive to Hispanic students. It makes new professors aware of the types of students they will be teaching and the many factors that shape their lives. Just getting to class, for example, is a hardship for some students. "We do everything to show our faculty where the students come from, including their home lives and environment," one administrator said. The program is not meant to "water down the curriculum," but to expose professors to the difficulties many students face, this administrator said. "We want them to know we are here to serve our students."
My research examined the programs and tools that help Latino students reach the finish line. But in the end, it takes supportive faculty members and administrators to create those programs and services—people like the Latina administrator who told me, "I do what I do every day so I can see the light in their eyes shine."
When given the opportunity, students will tell you what they need. When colleges are willing to listen, everybody wins.
Laura J. Cortez is a recent doctoral graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and a higher-education consultant. She has worked as a career and academic adviser to underrepresented minority students at Texas and St. Edward's University.