Universities Offer Academic and Social Support to Improve Latino Success

By  - 

Nearly one in five individuals residing in the U.S. is of Latino descent. Yet, despite being the second largest ethnic group in the country, they fall significantly behind other populations in higher education. As of 2014, only 15 percent of Latinos between the ages of 25 and 29 had a four-year degree, compared with 41 percent of Caucasians, 63 percent of Asian Americans, and 22 percent of African Americans. 

[Above: Latino students from UNCW wave the flags of their home countries during a Centro Hispano retreat in Carolina Beach, N.C.]

To ensure educational access and opportunities for Latinos, some colleges and universities have developed targeted recruitment efforts and unique support systems designed to affirm their cultural identity and guide them on the path to degree completion.   

Metro State’s St. Paul, Minn., campus
Metro State’s St. Paul, Minn., campus

Metropolitan State University
Metropolitan State University (Metro State) in St. Paul, Minn., is distinguished for its dedication to ensuring access to higher education for all. Founded on the mission to help working adults complete a postsecondary degree, Metro State is unique in its ability to serve these nontraditional students because of several factors, including affordability (at just under $8,000, it offers the lowest tuition of any four-year institution in the state), open-access admissions structure, and numerous night and weekend class offerings.

Additionally, because 40 percent of Metro State’s nontraditional students are also from underrepresented groups, the university prioritizes support for its diverse community, including the Latino population. 

Karina Moreno D’Silva
Karina Moreno D’Silva

Karina Moreno D’Silva serves as the university’s assistant director and Hispanic/Latino liaison, a position in which she focuses on recruiting these students and facilitating services and events for them on campus. As many transfer to Metro State from two-year institutions, D’Silva spends much of her time recruiting at these schools, particularly those that have large numbers of Hispanic and Latino students. “We focus on recruiting from community colleges, not high schools like most institutions,” she says. “We are trying to make Metro State more welcoming to Latino students and to have conversations about things that are important to them.” 

On campus, D’Silva works closely with the university’s Hispanic student organization, Pueblo, to reinvigorate the school’s outreach to the broader Latino community. “So far, our Latino student population is around 3.5 percent, so we are hoping to increase that by having different types of events and partnerships and [by] working within the community,” says D’Silva. “Pueblo is a very active part of that because [its members] help us make sure that these students get the support and services they need.”

In the past year, Metro State partnered with Pueblo to host Latino Family Night. Open to the public, the event presented information on the college application process, financial aid, and the challenges of being a working adult while attending college. In addition, Pueblo and several other campus units and student organizations co-hosted a public celebration called Fiesta del Pueblo. The event marked the end of the spring semester and was designed to celebrate the multiple Latino nationalities and cultures represented on campus through the sharing of traditional food, dancing, and games. It also provided an opportunity for Metro State to show its support and respect for its Latino students and their cultures, D’Silva says.  

The university has also held several information sessions and panels on social and political issues affecting the Hispanic population, such as immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “We had a panel of experts who are either Latino or work with Latino populations come to campus to explain to students how DACA might affect them,” D’Silva says. “We wanted to make sure that they could hear from actual experts and be able to ask questions because we found that a lot of them were just hearing things on the news and not getting the proper information.”

The event offered students the opportunity to share their personal struggles with immigrating to the U.S. Open to faculty and staff, it was an opportunity for those who teach and work with students to better understand their experiences, says D’Silva, adding that the university plans to host similar dialogues in the future. 

Metro State’s extensive outreach to the Latino community and its unique ability to serve these students has garnered the university international recognition. For the past three years, it has been one of fewer than 20 recipients of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad Scholarship (IME-Becas) grant — awarded by the Mexican government to U.S. institutions that help Hispanic students with few economic resources achieve their dream of earning a college degree. Metro State matches the funds provided by the IME-Becas grant to award approximately
12 annual scholarships. 

Current or incoming Mexican students can apply by submitting an essay that details how they have overcome hardships to pursue a college degree in the U.S. and how reaching this goal will help them give back to their community. Metro State hosts a ceremony for scholarship recipients where they can share these stories with the university community.— providing students, faculty, and staff with further insight into the importance of higher education for this population, says D’Silva.  

Millersville University
At Millersville University (MU) in Pennsylvania, Latino students are equipped with the tools to help them achieve academic success and a strong social support system before ever setting foot on campus. 

Kimberly Mahaffy
Kimberly Mahaffy

Recognizing that despite the growing number of Latino students enrolling at MU, many weren’t persisting past their first year, Kimberly Mahaffy, PhD, professor and director of Latino studies and coordinator for the office of diversity and social justice, created a three-day summer program called the Latino Student Leadership Institute.

 “We wanted a way to provide [them] not only information about campus support services, but also a way to meet other Latino students and to hear from faculty, staff, and alumni about their college experiences,” says Mahaffy.

The institute takes place shortly before the start of the fall semester each year, with all incoming Latino freshmen and transfer students welcome to join. It is held at a retreat center near campus, where participants, five peer leaders, Mahaffy, and other staff members stay for three days of bonding, self-reflection, and college-prep activities. The peer leaders are junior or senior Latino students who introduce participants to the many resources available on MU’s campus and help them understand what it’s like to attend a college where you are in the minority, says Mahaffy. 

Students, faculty, and alumni participate in a small group discussion during MU’s 2017 Latino Student Leadership Institute.
Students, faculty, and alumni participate in a small group discussion during MU’s 2017 Latino Student Leadership Institute.

“Each peer leader is responsible for a brief presentation on topics like cultural capital, embracing differences, and campus resources such as counseling and tutoring,” she says, adding that each one is assigned to supervise three to five students; they are responsible for everything from making sure their students are attending meal times to guiding small-group discussions. “The students become very attached to these peer leaders and know that they are people they can rely on to be there for them when the school year starts,” Mahaffy adds.

Faculty, staff, and alumni also join the institute as guest speakers for an afternoon of small-group discussion and networking. They talk about their own college experiences, including challenges they faced and how they were able to succeed despite them. Mahaffy pairs each guest speaker with a small group of students who share their academic and career interests. “The speakers help students better understand what the college process is like and what they can expect at [MU], as well as provide them with a connection to someone who is actually working in their potential career field,” explains Mahaffy. 

Incoming freshmen are allowed time for self-reflection regarding their personal goals as well as what it means to be a young Latino adult in today’s society. Peer leaders then guide their small groups through writing and dialogue activities to help students identify their personal strengths, goals, and support systems as they head into their first year at MU. 

Mahaffy (front row center) with institute students, guest speakers, and peer leaders
Mahaffy (front row center) with institute students, guest speakers, and peer leaders

Additionally, students gather in the evenings to watch films about the Latino experience in America, after which they engage in campfire discussions. “We talk about why Latino studies programs are important to the community, what it’s like to be an undocumented student, and stereotypes that people have of Latinos,” says Mahaffy, adding that participants tend to share their personal experiences with such issues. “It ends up being a really emotional, moving experience, and by the end of the institute, the students are very bonded with one another. It’s a great way for them to feel like they have people on campus … who really care about them.”

The institute also seems to have a positive effect on students’ academic success. According to Mahaffy, institute participants have higher GPAs, earn more credits per semester, and have higher retention rates than Latino students who do not participate. 

“This experience definitely increases our retention and graduation rates for Latino students,” says Mahaffy, “but I think it also demonstrates to them that they absolutely can be successful and can become leaders at a predominantly white institution.”

Kent Guion
Kent Guion

University of North Carolina Wilmington
At the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), Latino students benefit from a wide variety of academic and professional development services, cultural and social activities, and community outreach opportunities through the university’s Centro Hispano. Having a center and resource office specifically designated for Latino students has enabled UNCW to develop and fine-tune its recruitment and inclusion efforts for this growing population, says Kent Guion, MD, chief diversity officer. 

The center’s Mentors Initiating Community Action, Support, and Advocacy (MI CASA) program pairs Hispanic UNCW students with local high school sophomores who are also of Hispanic or Latino descent. The UNCW mentors assist their mentees with the program’s many college-prep services, such as SAT training, as well as attend the MI CASA annual picnic and other social activities together. In addition, Centro Hispano staff host informational sessions for parents on how to help their child prepare for college; these sessions focus on assisting with the application process and securing financial aid. Because the program’s ultimate goal is to show the broader Hispanic community that UNCW is a welcoming and supportive environment, many of MI CASA’s activities and events are presented in both Spanish and English, says Guion. 

“There are a lot of unique elements to this program … just to help build the sense that our campus is a place to be welcomed and supported,” he says. “That’s why we have students stay together with their mentors for the remainder of their high school career, with the hopes that they will attend UNCW. But we’ve had students [go to colleges] across the map, including some pretty selective Ivy League schools.”  

UNCW’s campus
UNCW’s campus

Joining MI CASA gives UNCW students the opportunity to engage with and give back to the local community — a focus that is reflected in much of Centro Hispano’s activities. The center’s close working relationship with the campus security and police force, for example, provides Hispanic students and law enforcement the rare opportunity to connect across cultures and learn from one another, Guion says. Together, the campus police department and Centro Hispano have facilitated opportunities for students to connect with officers via ride-alongs, self-defense classes for female students, social activities such as paintball, and more.

The center also engages with the department to work to overcome bias and cultural misunderstandings between American law enforcement and the Latino community. Centro Hispano staff host bias training for the department and, this past year, helped facilitate an immersion trip to Mexico through the Go Global North Carolina program, which connects the state’s educators and community leaders with international communities. Three campus officers and Centro Hispano’s director participated in the trip, along with members of other North Carolina police departments and state agencies. 

They learned about the relationship between Hispanic communities and police officers and how to apply this cultural knowledge in order to develop best practices for engaging with this population in the U.S. This year, UNCW hosted a conference for the departments and agencies to share what they learned and how to develop best practices for working with the Latino community.  

“[This provides a] great opportunity to learn some of the cultural differences and understand the role of policing that I think [ensures] an element of safety and understanding that you just don’t find in many places,” says Guion.● 

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Metropolitan State University is a 2017 HEED Award recipient. Millersville University is a 2012-2017 HEED Award recipient. The University of North Carolina Wilmington is a 2017 HEED Award recipient. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.