Latino enrollment growing at UI, across the country


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University of Iowa sophomore Jessica Padilla was thinking about college a year before high-school graduation.

"I was so set on coming …" the 19-year-old said. "I wanted my experience to be different, and I didn't see myself anywhere but here."

And the UI — like other colleges and universities across the nation — has seen an annual increase of Latino students like Padilla.

This fall, 1,334 Latino students are enrolled at the UI — an increase of 21.4 percent over last fall's 1,099.

"It's certainly not a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to national demographics that the Latino population is increasing," said UI Chief Diversity Officer Georgina Dodge. "We're seeing that corresponding tick in college-degree attainment and completion [here], as well."

A Pew Hispanic Center study shows a 24 percent increase in Latino college enrollment for 18- to 24-year-old students between 2009 and 2010.

While high levels of immigration and a high birth rate have made Latinos the largest minority group in America, an increased interest in education among the Latino community was also cited for the increase.

"We are certainly aware of [an increase] here," Dodge said. "We have some targeted initiatives for Latino populations in-state."

As an only child to Mexican parents who never sought higher education, Padilla said the UI's Upward Bound program — which aims at preparing low-income and first-generation students for college — helped navigate her way into college.

"Without them, I don't know if I would be at the university," Padilla said. "I spent the last two summers at the dorms here, and that helped a lot with bridging that fear of going to school out of town, and they helped with my parents. They didn't have the opportunities, so it was a way for them to get the idea of how it would be if I was to go and study out of town."

According to the Pew study, Latino student enrollment grew nationally by 349,000 between 2009 and 2010 — outpacing the growth in the number of African-American (88,000) and Asian-American (43,000) students.

Non-Latino white enrollment decreased 320,000 during the same time period, according to the study.

Though statistics show an increase in Latino students enrolling in higher education, a majority choose two-year over four-year institutions, a concern Dodge said the UI is tackling.

She said her office works closely with the Center for Diversity and Enrichment to provide Spanish-language recruitment material as well as the Pen Pal, summer institute, and other school programs focused on Latinos.

Affordability is also key, said Mario Duarte, the head of the UI Latino Council — a faculty-staff organization created to help Latino students.

"The two-year schools are going to be a much better buy than a four-year school," Duarte said.

UI programs help students financially through such scholarships as Advantage Iowa, Dodge said.

"[Admissions] makes an intentional effort to ensure that we identify college-ready students of color and make sure that they know what is available for them at the University of Iowa," said UI Assistant Provost for Admissions Michael Barron. "At the end of the day, minority students are students first."

Padilla said such scholarships enabled her to attend a four-year college, unlike many of her Latino peers in her community.

And many organizations, such as the UI Latino Council and Center for Diversity and Enrichment, work to provide opportunities for Latino students to further encourage increased participation on college campuses.

"I've been concerned about the numbers [of students participating] being low," Duarte said. "We need to have Latinos working in all fields."

But the increase shows minority attitudes toward education have changed, Duarte said.

"I think most people understand the importance of a four-year college education," he said. "It's part of the whole makeup with the country. It's part of our whole value system. I think that's filtering through all … [ethnic] groups."

Sergio Murillo, 20, junior, Chicago

College was an expectation for Sergio Murillo.

"[My parents'] whole thing was that they wanted something better for me," said the computer-science major.

The UI junior said he isn't surprised by the huge jump in Latino college enrollment.

"They didn't want me to be in their position," said Murillo, one of four children. "That's one of the reason's they pushed me as well. That's one of the reasons they pushed my older siblings, which then led to me."

A part of the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity, Murillo said, college could be hard for some Latinos, because of the change in demographics.

"I was pretty taken aback by how few Latinos there are out here," he said. "I was not really used to that. I was always used to being around minorities, and that's the one thing that really changed when I came here."

Isidro Talavera, 21, senior, Elgin, Ill.

Until high school, Isidro Talavera thought his only career options were to join the military or work in a factory.

"My older brother went into the military," the UI senior said. "[He] didn't have the option to go to school, so that was the only other option where [he] could have a steady income …"

But after doing well in school, a teacher told Talavera to apply to college. Now, he is proud to be the first male in his family to go to college.

"At first, I didn't really think much of it, but it's challenging, because usually you look up to people and you aspire to be like what they are, but in my family it seems like it's flipped," said the computer-science major. "People are starting to look up to me. So it's kind of hard because you carry the weight … you're always worrying not to mess up. Also, I guess you can say I'm a little proud, too, because I am the first."

Talavera said he believes Latino students who make it to college know the value of hard work.

"They're probably the cream of the crop, the top of their class, the ones who actually made a difference …" he said. "They are the ones who got out and were actually given an opportunity to get out, because they worked hard."

Jessica Padilla, 19, sophomore, Muscatine

Jessica Padilla wants to help students like herself see the value in higher education.

That's why the 19-year-old is considering a career path in student affairs as a counseling specialist for retention on campus and environment — her dream career.

"I'm really passionate …" she said. "I try to put myself in organizations that will help get me there."

Being involved with many UI programs, such as the Center for Development and Enrichment, Iowa Edge, and Association of Latinos Moving Ahead, have helped in realizing her passion.

"I just fell into place with where I want to go," said the UI sophomore. "Being here has helped me to get a different view and that there are many other diverse cultures that are worth trying to reach out to and get to know."

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