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Far From Home: Creating A Campus 'Culture Of Belonging'

The Castle at the College of New Rochelle.
Terry Ballard
Flikr Creative Commons |
The Castle at the College of New Rochelle.

Updated Jan.5.

To be considered a Hispanic Serving Institution, 25 percent of a college’s population must be Hispanic. Right now, there are 492 HSIs in the U.S., but David Ortiz with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities says that will change soon.

His organization has identified 3,000 Hispanic Serving School Districts. These pre-k through 12th-grade pipelines are turning out Hispanic graduates at record rates, and not just in Texas and the Southwest. Hispanic student populations are growing in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan. Federal legislation requires that colleges focus on graduation and gainful employment, which means they are going to have to do a better job understanding and graduating Hispanic students.

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“We're going to see this wave happening,” Ortiz said. ”Institutions that are ahead of that curve, ahead of that wave, are thinking now — 10 years down the road — about creating a campus culture that is not only welcoming to students and to their families but also creates a climate where they can find a sense of belonging.”

WATCH |  'Far From Home'

As those students go to college, Ortiz added, institutions have a duty to see that they emerge on the other side with a useful degree and not just debt.

“You have a responsibility to recruit them for the long haul,” he said, “because nothing takes a student's wind out of their sail as when they leave after a semester or a year racked with debt from an institution that didn't really help them succeed.”

The risk of carrying debt has led some college counselors to steer low-income students and students-of-color away from competitive colleges. 

Ruben Rodriguez, on left, Texas state director of KIPP Through College, and Angelica Martinez.
Credit Contributed photo
Ruben Rodriguez, on left, Texas state director of KIPP Through College, and Angelica Martinez.

report from the Center for American Progress Hispanic students is now over-represented in community colleges and certificate programs, while not taking up their fair share of seats in the Ivy leagues, state flagship universities, and liberal arts colleges.“These institutions have a moral imperative because they know that they can play a role to help change things back in the community or on the national landscape because a Harvard degree is very powerful. A Texas A&M degree is very powerful,” Ortiz said.

Families know this. The parents featured in the “Far From Home” series — Maria Martinez and Fernando Martinez, America Espinoza, and Angela Gonzales — all supported their students’ desire to leave home, even if it made them nervous.

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“She did not apply to anything in San Antonio,” said Sierra’s mother, Angela.

In fact, she didn’t apply to any schools in Texas. Sierra was determined to make herself get out into the world and explore, something Angela celebrates — most of the time. “Of course, on the other end, I am a mom. You know, like, ‘I want you here with me,’” she said.

Sierra Gonzales and Gonzales
Credit Contributed photo
Sierra Gonzales and Gonzales

The parents all described their students in similar ways: headstrong dreamers with big plans. The stubbornness is part of what makes them so sure their kids will persist in college.“Well, I think that's Angelica,” America Espinoza said. “She's always dreamed big. So as we got closer to her getting to a time in life when we need to start preparing and thinking about schools and colleges, it wasn't a surprise that she was going to go away.”

Julio Martinez’s parents differed on whether or not he would like being so far away from home, but his mother felt confident in her son’s maturity in making the decision to follow his dreams.

“He is mature for his age, and sure of himself,” said his mother, Maria, in Spanish. “The day we left him at the airport he acted very bravely, and that’s what I like about him.”

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Of course, the students all knew that they could come home if they really wanted to. College advisors warn parents against this, knowing that at some point homesickness will peak and the student will want to come home. They tell students to point their kids to the resources and supports available on campus.

“We can gauge parent support or the parent enabling (their student to leave college and come home),” said Ruben Rodriguez, Texas state director of KIPP Through College.

When he hears parents say, ”‘If they can't make it, they're always welcome to come back,” he knows there’s an increased likelihood that the student will come home.

Hispanic Serving Institutions in the U.S.
Hispanic Serving Institutions in the U.S.

He warns them the answer to loneliness isn’t to just call home. KIPP Through College tries to fill that void until they find “compadrazgo” — the sense that students have a godparent-like relationship — on campus. His counselors are intrusive, Rodriguez said, for a reason.R

RELATEDDifferent Stories, With Common Threads“We know what we're competing against,” he said. “We're competing against a life of just coming back and playing video games and sitting on the couch and your family supporting you as an adult. If that's the lifestyle you want to choose, that's a reality. That's an easy path to follow.”

The students are often confident as they prepare to leave, Rodriguez said, and the KIPP Through College team wants to see that confidence follow them to college. For parents, he said, that means pushing their students toward the campus instead of pulling them toward home.

Julio Martinez
Credit Contributed photo
Julio Martinez

However, for Hispanic parents to push their students to stick it out seems cruel, if the university has not done their part to earn the parents’ trust, said Jeanette Morales, director of K-12 initiatives with HACU.“It's that feeling of ‘confianza,’ ” said Morales, explaining what institutions can do to support families of first-gen students. “If I know where my son or daughter is going, and I know who the teacher is I can trust them with my child and I'm more comfortable with them.”

The universities that succeed with this impending demographic wave, Morales said, are those that earn the confianza of families. They also must genuinely embrace and celebrate all that first-gen and Hispanic students bring to their institution, and not just to fulfill a diversity mandate.

The "Far From Home" series is funded by an Education Writers Association reporting fellowship.

Bekah McNeel is an education reporter based out of San Antonio and can be reached at

CORRECTION: The number of Hispanic Serving Institutions in the U.S. has been updated.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Bekah McNeel