When I was an undergrad at the UA, often I was the only Chicano in most of my classes. In a few, there were two or three other Latino students. We were universally first-generation college students.
The snapshot came to mind recently when the University of Arizona announced it had received a federal designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution. It marks a significant milestone: 25 percent of the student population is Hispanic.
The designation by the U.S. Department of Education allows the UA to apply for specific grants that will help fund student scholarships, student services, faculty development and curriculum, among other programs, said Marla A. Franco, who was the point person in securing the designation. Franco, executive director for assessment, research and grant development in the Office of Student Affairs, sounded the optimistic note that the UA recognizes the designation is just the beginning of a wider effort to secure the university’s status.
The designation, said Franco, creates awareness and begins the conversation about “where do we go” from here.
Finally, I thought. In the late ’70s while I was at the UA, the percentage of Latino students was in the single digits. Having gone from ethnically-diverse Cholla High School to the virtually all-white UA was a cultural shock, a sentiment shared by other Latino students I knew there.
Today, the diversity at the UA is more evident.
According to the UA, “Hispanic undergraduate enrollment has increased by 29 percent over the past five years, from 7,243 in 2012 to 9,321 in 2017. And the retention rate in 2016 for first-time, full-time Hispanic freshmen was nearly 83 percent, just half a percentage point away from the overall UA retention rate.”
UA President Robert C. Robbins said in an April 5 news release, “We have been working toward earning this eligibility because of the direct impact it will have on Hispanic students from Arizona and the region. This select designation ensures that we are creating an environment that promotes student success.”
The long-sought-after designation is good news, not just for Latino students but for everyone at the UA, which is becoming, albeit slowly, more reflective of the demographics in Southern Arizona and the rest of the state.
But now what? Now that the UA, a major research institution and one of the largest Hispanic Serving colleges in the country, has a new banner that it can use to secure more funds and, hopefully, attract more Latino students and faculty, what comes next?
What should come next is the complete buy-in, from the new president down the line to the powerful echelons of provost, college deans and department heads and to the faculty. For decades, the local Latino community inside and outside the campus’ visible and invisible walls has pushed UA administrations to up their game in recruiting and retaining Latino students and faculty at all levels. Often we heard words but saw little action.
In 2005, Charles Tatum, dean of the College of Humanities from 1993 to 2008, authored a two-year study for former UA President Peter Likins, “Charting a University Course Toward Becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution Recommendations.” Tatum wrote that if the UA is to make significant progress, “There must eventually exist a pervasive culture that undergirds a collective commitment to do so.”
One of his key recommendations was the creation of a vice president for recruitment, retention and university-school partnerships.
“No amount of rhetoric and good intentions will substitute for measurable progress,” wrote Tatum.
Jim Garcia, president of the UA Hispanic Alumni Club and interim chairman of the Hispanic Community Council, believes that Robbins has already engaged with Latino students and the community, but “There’s work to be done.”
As a UA grad and now a director of the Adalberto & Ana Guerrero Student Center, Liz Soltero works with UA Latino students every day. She sees up close the cultural and community disconnect that often exists between Latino students and the land-grant university created in 1885.
“We should have been a Hispanic Serving Institution from the get-go,” she said. “We need to be held accountable by our community,” she said.
With the new designation comes renewed discussion and re-energized holding of the UA’s feet to the fire.
The UA is undergoing a review and redo of its 10-year strategic plan. Robbins, who was appointed the 22nd president last June, told the Board of Regents in the fall that the UA “will have a robust and inspirational strategic plan that will provide the road map for the future.”
If the UA is truly to be a Hispanic Serving Institution in a state whose population will increasingly swell with Latinos, the UA’s future and strength will depend on the university’s promise and responsibility to include a greater number of Latino students, faculty and administrators.