- Associated Press - Monday, December 16, 2019

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - It’s tough to go away to college, to start a new life in an unfamiliar environment and to find a new circle of friends.

Those challenges can be even more intimidating when you belong to a minority, and that’s why students in Pittsburg State University’s new Latina-based sorority said they’re thrilled to bring a local chapter to the campus.

“It’s like a lighthouse in an ocean,” Nathalie Vasquez, a music education major who is of Salvadorean descent, told The Joplin Globe.

The establishment of PSU’s Lambda Pi Upsilon sorority is one of a growing number of strategies and efforts being implemented in schools across the country to ensure that Hispanic students are supported in higher education.

Federal data show that Hispanics are enrolling in and graduating from college in higher numbers than ever before, but proportionally, they still lag behind their white peers.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow in the U.S., Hispanic students have made great educational strides over the past two decades, according to the 2019 “Condition of Education” report from the U.S. Department of Education.

Between the turn of the century and 2016, the percentage of school-aged children who were Hispanic increased from 16% to 25%. The total percentage of schools with more than 50% Hispanic student enrollment also was higher in 2016 than in 2000.

More Hispanic students now are staying in high school than before, increasing the likelihood that they’ll head to college. And because more students are graduating from high school, more of them are enrolling in college immediately afterward - 67% for Hispanic students in 2017, up from 49% in 2000. In fact, Hispanic enrollment at the undergraduate level more than doubled during that time period, from 1.4 million students in 2000 to 3.3 million in 2017. Enrollment in graduate programs also more than doubled for Hispanic students, from 111,000 in 2000 to 275,000 in 2017.

Despite the gains, white students still outpace their Hispanic counterparts at college. The enrollment rate for white young adults was higher than the rate for Hispanic young adults nearly every year between 2000 and 2017.

And fewer Hispanics end up with college degrees than their peers. Last year, the percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had attained at least an associate degree was 31% for Hispanics, compared with 54% for those who were white. For an educational level of at least a bachelor’s degree, those percentages dropped to 21% for Hispanic individuals and 44% for white individuals.

“It is critical that public colleges and universities be equitably accessible to all U.S. residents and have student bodies and graduates that mirror the racial and ethnic demographics of the states in which they reside,” say the authors of a separate report from The Education Trust, an advocacy group for minority students. “The existing racial and ethnic disparities in college degree attainment, America’s rising diversity and the increasing number of jobs that require some form of postsecondary education only make this issue more pressing. Demographic trends suggest that Latinos are the racial and ethnic group that will factor most prominently in this equation.”

At Pittsburg State, the new Latina-based sorority is the latest effort to support Hispanic students once they arrive on campus. The local chapter is only the third in the Midwest; others are at Wichita State University and the University of Illinois.

“They aspired to strengthen the representation of students of color, particularly the women of color on campus, through cultural awareness and academic enrichment,” said Deatrea Rose, director of student diversity programs, in a statement.

The sorority was founded in 1992 at the State University of New York College at Geneseo. Its founding principles are designed to empower initiates to educate others about the fallacy of the negative stereotypes that surround Latinos, to act as a role model, to work for the advancement of women and to emphasize the importance of higher education.

Its newest PSU initiates - Vasquez, Cassandra Roque and Samantha Ruvalcaba - stress that the sorority is open to all women on campus, not strictly Hispanic women.

“The goal that we have is really just to give a home to the girls that want to join Greek life but don’t feel very welcome or comfortable with the sororities already established on campus,” Vasquez said. “We want to be able to provide more of a home to these girls where we can share similar values and struggles.”

The young women already share similar stories. Both Roque, who is of Salvadorean descent, and Ruvalcaba, of Mexican descent, are first-generation college students, while Vasquez’s parents attended college in their home country but had to leave before they graduated because of civil war.

All three say their parents’ experiences with education and the sacrifices they made for their children motivated them to work harder toward achieving college degrees.

“I saw it as a next step,” said Roque, of Westwood, Kansas. “Because my parents didn’t go to college, it was something I had to do in honor of their hard work.”

Roque said she also wants to set the bar high for other Hispanic students, including those in her family and circle of friends, to show them that a college degree is worth the effort.

“The fact is that a lot of Latinos, if they’re first-generation, they may not understand the importance of higher education, and we’re trying to break that cycle,” she said. “If I go to college, I want my daughter to follow in my footsteps and go to college.”

The mindset related to higher education appears to be changing in Hispanic communities, supporting the U.S. Department of Education’s findings that more Hispanic students are pursuing college. Vasquez said she was first of the younger generation at her church in her hometown of Kansas City, Kansas, to go off to college.

“I go back and see (other young people) making plans for college, and I think that speaks volumes,” she said. “Latinos and people of color in general are valuing higher education over going straight into the workforce.”

That’s a major reason why the new sorority exists. Emily Flores, assistant director of student diversity programs, believes the sorority will be crucial for Pittsburg State through its ability to attract and retain Latina students.

“Multicultural groups will help integrate and connect students to the community and the campus at large,” she said.

Ruvalcaba, of Wichita, Kansas, believes that to be true. She feels “blessed” to have had a part in launching the sorority at Pittsburg State, and she thinks it already has made her more involved on campus and in her community.

“I feel like everyone needs to have a home away from home,” she said. “Everyone has a different story, and (because of diversity) you learn to appreciate and value things in life.”

Drury University, a Springfield-based institution, has a campus in Monett, where a growing percentage of the K-12 student population is Hispanic. It offers a grant-funded program for migrant students to receive services such as financial assistance, mentoring and advising during their first year on the Drury-Monett campus.

Those students come from schools such as Monett and Carthage, and increasingly, they are Hispanic, said Yesenia Perez, program director.

“Most of them are first-generation students, and it’s who this program is designed to serve,” she said. “They’re not going to have anyone in their family who has gone through (college). Because of a lack of guidance, they don’t always complete (their degree), not even the first year sometimes.”

Perez, a Mexican-American who also is a graduate of Monett High School, said most of the students served by the program already have the motivation and desire to succeed in higher education. What the program does is walk them through the first year, increasing their chances of retention.

“It’s more about helping them discover what they’re already capable of doing,” she said. “Academics are not the issue; they just need a little bit of guidance and coaching.”

Missouri Southern State University in Joplin also has seen its Hispanic student enrollment grow in recent years. According to numbers compiled by Missouri Southern’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the number of Hispanic/Latino students enrolled at MSSU has nearly doubled in the past five years - from 214 in 2014 to 420 in 2019.

“We make efforts to ensure our student population is one that is diverse and inclusive,” said Michael Sanders, dean of admissions, in a statement. “We also try to diversify our admissions staff to help us recruit and retain the various student populations.”

Even with the work undertaken by individual colleges and universities, preparing Hispanic students for higher education often begins long before the students are college-aged.

In the Carthage School District, where approximately 36% of the student body is Hispanic, administrators provide families information about graduation requirements as soon as students enter high school, said Jana Sawyer, coordinator of the English Language Learners program. Extra guidance is given if a student needs English language instruction or if a transcript from another high school needs to be evaluated, she said.

Sawyer said her belief is that all students should have access to the same educational opportunities after graduation.

“It makes stronger people, and stronger people make stronger communities,” she said. “I spent time in classrooms today, and I don’t always get to do that. I think it’s easy, when you don’t do that, to make a lot of statements about a group of people, but when you have the opportunity to look a child in the face and see the joy of learning and see how badly they want that, it’s something we need to think about. We’re talking about children and their futures.”

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