Moms key in Hispanic women going to college

Published: Wednesday, July 11 2012 12:26 a.m. MDT

A Mother-Daughter Program at UTEP has received national attention for its unique approach and impressive results. Education advocates around the country look to the program for insight on improving the education outcomes of Hispanic women.

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Dr. Josie Tinajero knew from personal experience that Hispanic women are underrepresented at college. As a girl, she watched her older sisters, cousins and neighbors drop out of school. In the mid-1970s, Tinajero was one of just a handful of Hispanic undergraduate women studying at the University of Texas El Paso.

In 1986, after completing a doctorate degree in education at Texas A&M, she returned to UTEP as an assistant professor. While she had been away from the school for 10 years, she didn't take notice of the woefully low college enrollment for Hispanic women.

"The population of El Paso is 80 percent Hispanic," she said, "but only 8 percent of our Hispanic women go to college." Deeply troubled by the status quo, Tinajero decided to do something about the low college enrollment trend.

The under-representation of Hispanic women at college is not a problem limited to El Paso. Throughout the state of Texas and around the country, Hispanic women are less likely than their non-Hispanic peers to be enrolled at a college or university. When Hispanic women attend college, they are less likely to graduate. The barriers to higher education they face, which include family expectations, financial obligations and legal restrictions, are well documented.

In Texas, programs that encourage Hispanic students to go to college are as ubiquitous as they are ineffective. Tinajero knew that if she wanted to see change, she needed to find a way for students to internalize the importance of college. Capitalizing on unique insight into Hispanic family dynamics, she came up with an innovative plan: she'd include mothers in her college preparation program.

"The most important role models for young girls, especially in the Hispanic community, is found with the family system," she said. "Hispanic mothers have a huge impact on how their daughters make decisions."

Tinajero's insight is important in light of research on the impact parents have on their children's propensity to enroll in university. Children whose parents understand and emphasize the importance of higher education are more likely to enroll in college, according to Susan Auerbach, a professor of education at California State University Northridge.

While many Hispanic parents want better lives for their children, the world of higher education and how to prepare for it is foreign to them, according to Cecilia Rios-Agular, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California. Parents want to help their kids go to college, they just don't know how, Rios-Agular said. Tinajero's program shows them a way.

Tinajero's approach

Starting with the importance of family as a core principle, Tinajero and her colleagues at UTEP constructed a program they believed could boost college participation rate of Hispanic women. They call it "the Mother-Daughter Program."

In the first year of operation, they selected 33 sixth- grade Hispanic girls from Ysleta Elementary School in El Paso who showed academic promise, but were considered at risk for dropping out of school. Generally, that meant girls who had limited English language skills and a history dropouts in their families, according to Tinajero.

Working with a partner at the school, Tinajero planned monthly activities for the girls and their mothers. Sometimes they listened to presentations by accomplished Hispanic women on how to prepare for a career. Other months they toured UTEP's facilities, the libraries and science labs "to get a sense of what a university looks and feels like," Tinajero said. Service activities, which help students learn the importance of giving back to their communities and develop leadership skills, rounded out the program.

Tinajero was optimistic about the program's positive impact, but she admits she was surprised when she received a formal evaluation of the academic outcomes of the first group of young women who participated. Of the 33 girls who participated, 26 went on to college. Additionally, it was found that participants were more likely to enroll in honors courses and earn above-average scores on high school achievement exams. Participants were also less likely to get pregnant while in school than nonparticipants.

The Mother-Daughter Program has received national attention for its unique approach and impressive results. Education advocates around the country look to Tinajero's program for insight on improving the education outcomes of Hispanic women.

Since 1986, the program has expanded to include 36 schools in El Paso as well as a similar father-son organization.

Why it's needed

For many Latino parents, attendance at a university is uncharted territory. Parents who are unfamiliar with college may "construe (it) as a threat and resist the best-laid plans of qualified students," noted Susan Auerbach, a professor of education at California State University, Northridge.

Annie Salinas, a school counselor who worked with the Mother-Daughter Program for 20 years, remembers her migrant worker parents being displeased about her decision to enroll at the University of Texas-Pan American. She remembers being scolded by her mother for studying. "She would say, 'Quit wasting time, Annie, and help me around the house,' " Salinas recalled. "My parents weren't trying to be mean, and they weren't dumb either, but they didn't know any different. All they saw were economic issues."

College can seem risky and expensive. Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a Hispanic clinical psychologist who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y., was berated by family members about her decision to take on debt to go to Stanford University. From her family's perspective, education debt seemed like speculation instead of a safe bet. "When you don't come from a background of college educated people, it's hard to see how the investment in university will pay out," Garcia-Acrement said.

Other parents want to be "supportive of their children, but lack procedural knowledge to help them," said Rios-Agular at Claremont Graduate University. They don't know how to navigate the university bureaucracy, she said, and some Hispanic immigrant parents not understand how to help their child apply for federal funding or scholarships, or even know that those things exist. Tinajero encountered parents who needed guidance on how to facilitate studying by creating a space in the home for that purpose.

A parent's limited English skills can also be a barrier. Consider an example from Texas. The state passed a law granting residents who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin. President George Bush, then the state's governor, sent letters to the parents of all graduating seniors in the state outlining the program. However, the letters were only available in English. Of the Hispanic students who qualified for the top 10 percent program, 58 percent failed to enroll at any post-secondary institution.

Why it works

Salinas and Tinajero attribute much of the success of the Mother-Daughter Program to parental support. "For the program to work, it has to be a partnership," she said. "If parents buy in, they will support their kids."

Tinajero was pleasantly surprised how invested in higher education many of the "mamas" became. She remembers several timidly approaching her after presentations about the importance of college with questions about what they needed to do to enroll.

One woman in particular stands out. Rosa Juarez came to the program with her 12-year-old daughter, Jessica. The newly divorced factory worker had a 3rd grade education. Juarez decided that if college was important for her daughter's future, it was important to for hers too. Plodding away over the years, she earned a GED and then a bachelor's degree. By the time her daughter graduated from high school, Juarez received a master's degree in education. Tinajero notes Jessica Juarez and her sister both followed their mother's footsteps and earned college degrees.

The timing of the program is also noteworthy. The younger a student is when they start thinking about higher education, the more likely they are to enroll in college. Many Latino kids don't start thinking about college until high school, but participants of the Mother-Daughter Program start early. This is important because it gives families time to prepare and plan.

Salinas sees another benefit of working with that age group. "We take them before they think their parents aren't cool," she said. "The kids are still at an age where they like their parents, value them and want to spend time with them."

Tinajero and Salinas both think that community dedication to the goal of helping Latino women obtain higher education has sustained the Mother-Daughter Program through its 25-plus years of operation.

"The program is a success because we are addressing this problem as a community," Tinajero said.

Most of the people who work for the program do so on a voluntary basis. Neither Tinajero or Salinas have ever received financial compensation for their work related to the Mother-Daughter Program.

"I'm compensated as a dean," Tinajero said. "I consider this my community service. I need to give back to my community."

email: mwhite@desnews.com

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