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Latino students face barriers to higher education

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 11:27 p.m. MDT

State senator Luz Robles holds Alina Camacho as they listen to members of the Salt Lake Dream Team and the Campaign for the American Dream prior to walking from the state capitol to Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville in support of the DREAM Act Thursday, May 8, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) State senator Luz Robles holds Alina Camacho as they listen to members of the Salt Lake Dream Team and the Campaign for the American Dream prior to walking from the state capitol to Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville in support of the DREAM Act Thursday, May 8, 2012. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This report is part 4 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 3: Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care
Part 6: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

Chris Lopez (not his real name) has an impressive résumé. He graduated from one of Utah's top high schools with a 3.6 grade point average. He is fluent in two languages. He was the leader of his Boy Scout troop and participated in a youth leadership and college preparation program at school.

As a freshman, Lopez secured a spot as a starting forward on his school's varsity soccer team. His small stature and impressive speed earned him the nickname "Chicharito," which means "little pea." He shares the moniker with Javier Hernandez, a top Mexican professional who plays for Manchester United.

Lopez has been accepted to Utah Valley University and intends to enroll there this fall. For many top high school graduates, the move would be a modest accomplishment, but Lopez is a pioneer. He is the first person in his family to graduate from high school — let alone be accepted to a university. He was even offered a small scholarship. His proud parents gave him a used car as a high school graduation present. He will need it to make the hourlong commute to and from campus.

Despite his determination and auspicious beginning, Lopez will have to beat the odds to graduate from college. Lopez is an undocumented immigrant. His scholarship only covers his first semester's tuition, which means for every semester thereafter, he will need to come up with $3,000. Without papers, he will have trouble finding a job to pay for the next three-and-a-half years.

President Barack Obama's pledge to give asylum to undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children doesn't give Lopez a lot of peace of mind. Deportation is still a reality for his parents. "Congress might stop him," he said of Obama's plan. "He might not get re-elected." Lopez knows that until everyone in his family has papers, all bets are off.

His father, a landscaper, depends on Lopez to help him communicate with clients. His mother, who works seven days a week cleaning houses, relies on him to tend his younger twin brothers and help out around their cramped two bedroom apartment. His hardworking parents have committed to help him as much as they can, but he can't quite shake the feeling that going to college is selfish. "I could help my family a lot if I just get a job," he said.

Lopez's situation is not unique.

Across the country, smart, capable Hispanic students face immense obstacles to fulfill their collegiate dreams. While some of the challenges are particular to undocumented students, many apply equally to legal residents and citizens.

Latinos have the lowest level of educational attainment of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to Alberta Gloria, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since 2000, white adults have been two times as likely as U.S. born Hispanics to receive a bachelor's degree and four times as likely as foreign-born Hispanics, according to Marta Tienda, a professor at Princeton University.

"Increasingly, college attainment is mandatory for labor market success," Tienda said. "Individuals who don't receive some form of post-secondary education will be marginalized in the economy of the 21st century," she said.

But another consideration is the fact that Hispanics are projected to be the fastest growing segment of the labor force in the years ahead. Immigration will continue to add to the number of Hispanics in the United States, but in the coming years, it is their above-average birth rates that will really drive population growth, according to demographers. On average, Hispanic women can expect to have about one more child than the average non-Hspanic white woman, Tienda said. "U.S. competitiveness will be impacted by the progress Hispanics make at all levels of the educational system," she said.

So what keeps Latino students out of higher education?

"Financial considerations are a significant barrier," said Cecilia Rios Agular, a professor of education at Clarmont Graduate School. "But this is more than just a financial issue. It is much more complicated." Family and legal considerations also weigh heavily on these students.

Family

When Nerina Garcia-Arcement, then 18, announced she had been accepted to Stanford University with a scholarship, she was met with disapproving stares. Her parents, who emigrated from Mexico as teenagers, weren't impressed. Attending the prestigious school would require her to move away from home.

Their reaction took Garcia-Arcement, now 36, completely by surprise. When Garcia-Arcement was 12, her parents moved the family from East Los Angeles 12 miles south, to Whittier, because they wanted their kids to have better educational opportunities.

"My parents always said to me, 'Use your brain so you don't have to use your body like a donkey,' " she said. She took their advice to start earning top grades, playing flute with the school band and participating in student government.

Her parents' lack of enthusiasm stung, but now she understands that by moving away for school, she was challenging family norms.

"Culturally you aren't supposed to leave your parents' house unless you are married," she said. "I think my parents worried about my reputation."

It isn't that Hispanic parents don't want their kids to go to college, according to Rios Agular. "They believe in education. They immigrated to this country because they wanted better lives for their kids," she said. University is unchartered territory for many Hispanic parents. "They hear things about what happens at college, and they get nervous," Garcia-Arcement said. "My parents wanted to protect me."

"This isn't a dead issue, either," she said. Just over the weekend, Garcia-Arcement learned that one of her cousins, a top student in Texas who has been admitted with full scholarships to several Ivy League universities, won't be going to college in the fall because her parents do not support her leaving home.

Garcia-Arcement went Stanford. She earned a bachelor's degree and went on to get a doctorate from Fordham University in New York City. Today, she works as a clinical psychologist in Brooklyn, New York.

While she is a huge advocate of college, she admits her education places a wedge between her and some of her family. "When someone like me thinks about college, we have to wrestle with our identity. If higher education is not something most of your family does, you will be different," she said.

For the educated children of tightly knit Latino families, that difference is a bitter pill to swallow. "For us, education is not just about what we gain, but also what we lose," Garcia-Arcement said.

"Before I went to college, I was like them, an insider. But during college, they started treating me differently." The good-natured jokes her cousins made about her vocabulary or studious habits took on a different tone. She couldn't tell if they were laughing with her or at her. "With so many members of my family, I can only be half of myself," she said.

Often, this means biting her tongue. For example, when her father, while wandering though the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum in New York City, muttered that none of this is real, she just smiled and didn't offer her perspective. "I don't want to come across as uppity or conceited," she said. I just have to realize that I can't expect to share everything with them."

Financial

Minorities have been hit hard by the economic downturn, according to William Frey, a demographer with the Brooking Institute in Washington. Almost 27 percent of Hispanics are considered below the poverty line, based on data from the National Poverty Center. In order for many of these families to make ends meet, everyone has to contribute.

Garcia-Arcement tells how her mother, the second oldest of 12 children, did domestic work every day since she was 15 to help keep her family afloat. "There is an expectation in many Latino families that the older kids will help support the family," Garcia Arcement said.

The expectation is a challenge for students who want to go to college.

Money that would otherwise go to the family is diverted to tuition and other school-related expenses. "It's hard for kids to feel like they are taking away from their families," said Ali Webb, an English as a second language teacher who worked with the recent high school graduate Lopez.

Hispanic students' desire to help support their families is the No. 1 reason they do not enroll in post-secondary programs, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

There is also a strong cultural aversion to loans, Garcia-Arcement explains.

"Lots of families operate on a cash-only basis," she said. "When you have low resources, you don't buy unless you can pay up front," she said.

She recalls her extended family asking her why she was going into debt for school and what she thought she was going to get from it. "Many Americans see education as an investment, but if you don't come from a background of college-educated people, it is hard to understand how that investment will pay out," she said.

Legal

Juan Esclanate, 23, wasn't always an undocumented resident of the United States. His family moved to Miami from Caracas, Venezuela, in 2000.

"My dad had an 'L' visa. He worked and paid taxes and planned to apply for permanent residency for the family," Esclante said.

But in 2006, his father's company inadvertently failed to file the family's immigration renewals. By the time they realized what happened, it was too late.

The fallout was devastating.

A top student at his high school, Escalante had been accepted to the University of Florida and was awarded a large scholarship. In order to enroll, however, he had to prove he was a legal resident. When he was unable to produce the documents, his scholarship was revoked.

While some scholarships are available to undocumented students, many others are not. They are not allowed to apply for federal aid. In many states, universities consider them foreign students and charge them anywhere from three to seven times more in tuition and school fees, according to Leisy Janet Abrego of UCLA.

Some undocumented students worry how accepting awards would draw attention to their status. "They are so used to living under the radar," Rios Agular said. "And it is risky to be open about this."

Determined to get a college degree, Escalante looked into other options. At the time, Florida allowed undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition at community colleges. Escalante enrolled at a local school and began taking classes with the hope of eventually finding a way to transfer to a four-year school.

Working as an advocate for Florida's undocumented students, Escalante had met an individual who offered to pay for him to finish his degree at Florida State University. He graduated a few months ago with a degree in international relations.

Escalante is one of the lucky ones, though.

He feels pressure to succeed, to show his younger brothers that the struggle of going to college is worth it. "Undocumented youth confront legal barriers that lower their aspirations and impede educational attainment of even the most eager students," Abrego said.

Immigrant children make up a large percentage of the population in the United States, according to Abrego, "which means they have transformative potential on the country." But in order for that potential to be realized, "educational attainment is crucial."

"As our demographics change, more people of color are going to confront these barriers," Garcia-Arcement said. "I know how hard it is. I've lived through it."

Editor's note: This report is part 4 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 3: Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care
Part 6: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

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