The College of Lake County (CLC), a community college in Illinois recognized as a Hispanic Serving Institution, adopted a cultural response to recruit and retain Latino students in tackling the student deficit it experienced during the pandemic.
According to its official enrollment numbers, the response saw a 27 percent increase in Latino student enrollment for the Fall 2021 semester (36 percent of all students were Latinx, per CLC). According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, this was a welcomed change since Latino undergraduate enrollment in colleges nationwide declined by seven percent between 2019-2021.
The college’s multipronged cultural response included hiring bilingual therapists that offer counseling in English and Spanish to Spanish-speaking and international students and a Latino student outreach coordinator to be part of its student inclusion and activities office. CLC also hired a new team of college and career navigators that were embedded in high schools feeding into its community college district to encourage Latino students to enroll in college after graduation, according to Erin Fowles, the college’s director of enrollment.
Like CLC, City Colleges of Chicago, a system of 7 community colleges and 5 satellite sites in the Chicago area, undertook concerted efforts to meet the cultural needs of the 17,912 Latino credit-earning students across its campuses in order to encourage retention and recruitment. Some of the measures CCC adopted included celebrating Latino cultural events, such as “Hispanic Heritage Month,” and other culturally significant days such as Hispanic/Latino Flag Day, Fiesta del Barrio, and Fiesta del Sol, according to Veronica Resa, the college’s director of media relations.
“I think a cultural approach to the Latino community is [needed], that there’s a sort of what we call familismo or… a feeling of a sense of community that we as a whole, are really invested in higher education and progressing our community forward for the sake of our country,” said Emily Labandera, director of research at Excelencia in Education, a DC-based nonprofit, aimed at accelerating Latino students’ success in higher education.
The sentiment of recognizing the cultural needs of Latino students is echoed by student Sergio Blacutt, who was enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College as a political science major when the pandemic struck, leading him to decide to drop out.
Blacutt had struggled with the transition to remote learning and was afraid his declining grades would lead him to lose his financial aid. So he decided it was best to take a break from college and focus on getting a job while tending to his family.
“My parents were running low on money because they weren’t getting as many hours,” Blacutt said. “There was only one person in my house that was really getting hours, [my dad] because my dad would work overnight.”
Along with the financial responsibilities of his household, Blacutt also took on parenting duties.
“I had to take care of my sister, who at that moment wasn’t working. She was just graduating high school,” he said.
According to Andrea Flores, Assistant Professor of Education at Brown University, “For many [Latino] families, it was a decision between meeting those basic human needs and trying to get ahead. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many safety nets initially for folks to be able to balance both [jobs and a college education].”
The situation gets even more complicated for families of front-line and essential workers and undocumented families.
“I think that families, particularly low-income families and immigrant families, have had to deal with the consequences of the shutdowns in a different way because their jobs tend to be more of many working-class migrants, like restaurant workers or first-line workers,” Flores said.
“Obviously, this is more challenging for undocumented populations who weren’t eligible for pandemic relief,” she added about the challenges immigrant families face. “So for undocumented students in college, the situation became even more dire.”Pre-pandemic, Latino student populations in higher educational institutions were growing at an accelerated rate, according to Labandera, before it fell sharply. In community colleges, where a large population of students identify as Latino, there was a nearly 28% decline in Latino student enrollment in Fall 2020, according to the NSCRC.
“So about six months into the pandemic, we saw a significant drop in that enrollment, and when we look at projected data over this next decade, that enrollment is projected to increase but not at that significant sort of accelerated rate that we were seeing,” she said.
“I remember being depressed, just stuck in here [at home], not moving, especially since every day, I was going out when I was going to college.”Sergio Blacutt, was enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College
In improving enrollment, the cultural approach provides psychological resources to students since the issues caused by the pandemic compounded to affect students’ mental wellness.
“Mental health is a real thing as well….being locked up for a certain time, you can get depressed,” Blacutt said. “I remember being depressed, just stuck in here [at home], not moving, especially since every day, I was going out when I was going to college.”
In many Latino households, students live with multiple generations of their family or share accommodation with other families, making it more challenging to focus on remote classes, Flores said.
According to its Dean of Student Life, Gabriel Lara, the College of Lake County was helped by its bilingual therapist service in fostering a sense of community among its Latino students.
The college’s Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS) provides “culturally responsive clinical services to CLC students,” and its director, Arellys Aguinaga, is Latina. The bilingual therapists provide counseling in both English and Spanish, Lara said.
Lara added that cultural representation through staff is how colleges have sought to meet their students’ cultural needs. Hence, an increasingly growing demand; for example, at CLC, Latino students make up around 42 percent of the total student demographic seeking counseling.
“So by having these resources not only in their native language but also culturally, it creates that opportunity for students who want to be here,” Lara said.
City Colleges of Chicago also undertook concerted efforts to take care of Latino students’ mental health, according to Veronica Resa, its director of media relations. “City Colleges of Chicago ensures students are connected to its Wellness Centers for social and emotional support,” she said.
Looking at Latino students as more than a monolith is key to a thriving cultural response.
“I think at the higher ed level; it’s going to require universities and colleges to really work with students to manage what needs they might have as a family, and understand that a student is not just a student, and isn’t just one type of person, that they have many, many other roles,” Flores said.
Adopting a holistic approach toward students is one of the themes Labandera said her nonprofit found in the institutions it recognized with its seal of Excelencia for having successful Latino student-centered programs. In its 2021 “What Works For Latino Students Compendium,” the nonprofit identified some common elements in its examples of Excelencia, such as the importance of building comunidad (community) and using an asset-based approach that celebrates students’ unique strengths and contributions.
This importance of building community is recognized by City Colleges of Chicago, through its encouragement of Latino student organizations across its campuses, such as the Latin American Student Organization and Organization of Latinx American Students (OLAS), according to Resa. CCC documents its student success stories on its website as well as through newsletters and its social media platforms.
“Because education transforms lives, City Colleges of Chicago has a vital role to play in supporting Latinx students, all students, and their communities, so we can help build a stronger and more just city,” said Juan Salgado, Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago. “Racial and ethnic inequities remain pervasive and have to be dismantled if we are to succeed.”
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For example, Howard Community College in Columbia, MD, through its Ambiciones initiative, used intensive academic advising, financial aid, and culturally relevant programs such as hosting its on-campus senior family night in Spanish to engage Latino students. This, according to Excelencia in Education’s website, led to a 91 percent retention rate among first-time/full-time participants of the program compared to 67 percent of non-participants, and a 50 percent retention rate among part-time student participants compared to 45 percent of non-participants, In Spring 2020, 90 percent of the program participants achieved good academic standing as opposed to 81 percent of non-participants.
While a cultural approach is necessary to recognize Latino students’ familial and community needs, there are other limitations they face along with other low-income student populations, such as financial concerns, technological barriers, and the need for balance between their work and academic schedule that will need to be addressed through different approaches.
Meeting Latino student needs through various responses, such as providing financial aid, allowing for a more flexible academic schedule, and providing technical support such as ensuring a steady WIFI connection, is necessary to counteract the college dropout rate among Latino students, which ends up hurting their future prospects in the long-run.
A report by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative showed a disproportionate impact on Latino students and students of color when they delayed college plans, as they faced more challenges when it came to re-entry, as well as “durable negative effects on salary and expected earnings after graduation.”
In Blacutt’s case, his dropping out gave him a new direction, as he decided to pursue a career in hospitality and currently works as a sales coordinator at Island Hospitality. He plans to return to school at some point to get his associate’s degree, especially as his parents encourage him to do so.
“I was only one semester away from getting my associates and I feel like sometimes my parents are right; maybe I should really pursue my associates because having a degree is better than having no degree,” he said.
Apps Mandar Bichu is a graduate student journalist pursuing a Masters of Science in Journalism at Northwestern University.
She is currently interning at The Chicago Reporter and Illinois Latino News (ILLN).
She specializes in multimedia journalism and is passionate about social justice reporting, travel journalism, and all forms of content creation.
The Chicago Reporter is collaborating with Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in providing students with mentoring and real work experiences. As such, the Chicago Reporter is part of the professional partnerships within the Social Justice Specialization and as part of Medill’s Metro Media Lab.
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