Monday, April 26, 2010

Latinos in Higher Education: Too Few to Celebrate

Rosie with Bola Akanji, a visiting scholar from Nigeria,  & Jody Lisberger, chair of URI Women's Studies Program


In 1974, not long after I finished my bachelor's degree, I visited a friend who was in graduate school at Iowa State University in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the first time I had ever gone to the Midwest and I knew absolutely nothing about it. It never occurred to me that people would be any different from my hometown of San Francisco. Yes, I know; I was very naive.

My friend took me to a favorite restaurant; she wanted me to try the pork chops, cut thick like a steak, the likes of which I had never seen. The waitress came to our table, took one look at me and said, “You aren't from around here, are you?” I stuttered, “ Uh, no…” and I looked around the room. Every other person in the room was several shades whiter than I; it didn't help that it was midwinter when no one in the room would have seen the sun for a couple of months. My hair, coal black, long, thick and curly, really stood out in contrast to the blond and light brown hair of everyone else in the room. I felt vaguely embarrassed; I guess I don't belong here, I thought.

People are not usually as direct as that waitress but I have had many, many experiences like this; veiled, implied, hinted at, but clear, nevertheless. In fact, I still experience it even though my hair is going gray and worn short. The difference is that now I am acutely aware that this situation should have changed more than it has.

I was thinking about this when I went to the open house our new university president's residence. Looking around, I saw everyone there was white except for me. I still feel a brief pang of panic in that kind of situation, but I have been there a long time; I'm sure they have forgotten about my difference. But I can never forget; I was nearly overcome with the desire to go to the president, who was standing by the door amiably greeting all the visitors, to say, “Hi, I'm one of your 12 Latino faculty!” But it was not the time or the place to call attention to myself, although there is never a good time or place for this issue.

This is my seventeenth year at the University of Rhode Island. According to the university's own Fall 2008 statistics, there are five Latinos in the College of Arts and Sciences. Overall, URI has 699 faculty members: only twelve, or 2%, are Latinos or Hispanic; nineteen, or 3.2% are African or African Americans. Four hundred ninety-eight are white.

The Latino or Hispanic statistic has a kind of hidden trick to it: several are from Spain or the Latin American countries; perhaps half are United States-born and/or raised Latinos. What difference does that make? It means that the real numbers have not changed in a substantive way during my years here. The Latino population is increasing exponentially in the United States, even here in little Rhode Island, but Latino students are not getting into the higher education pipeline. Faculty members born in Latin America tend to be from privileged backgrounds because the majority of the people in the region are poor; if one has the money to go to college, there is money for other things as well.

It is only in the United States that Latinos have the upward mobility to go from working-class to university. At least, that’s the way it has been in the past; California’s economic collapse will have a great impact on the ambitions within the Latino community because California has been the state that has turned out the highest number of educated Latinos. California’s disaster is a disaster for all Latinos in the U.S.

The disaster ignited a few years ago with the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. Proposition 209 ended affirmative action in admissions to the university system, including the University of California, the state’s flagship university and one of the most distinguished and important in the Wiith theworld. My doctorate is from UCLA.

The California university system had to come up with a different way to diversify its student body, and it did, but the long-term effects have included a dramatic drop in the number of Latino and black students. In 2006, marking the ten-year anniversary of the passage of Prop 209, The Nation magazine noted that the incoming class had only 100 African Americans out of 4,802 new students. Latinos are not mentioned.

Rosie with the chair of our History Department, Marie Schwartz

This year, here at the University of Rhode Island, our Talent Development Program, which runs a pre-matriculation session during the summer for disadvantaged students of all colors, is expecting a drop in its enrollment of about 50%. The TD program, like every other part of the university, is suffering from the severe cuts in funding. These developments mean that my classes will be whiter. The cuts in funding and the reduction in scholarships also mean that many young people will not even attempt to go to college.

One disturbing trend I've noticed is how much students are working at full-time jobs. I have run into students who work the night shift and come in barely able to stay awake in class. I made a comment to a student the other day noting the early hour of her e-mail to me, and she said that she read her e-mail just as she got off work at 5:30 in the morning.

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in a grocery store line, waiting impatiently as the clerks scrambled to find a price for yucca for the customer in front of me. Suddenly, a young man's voice called to me, “Dr. Pegueros—let me help you over here.” The clerk was a student I'd taught a couple of summers earlier, a Latino. I asked him how his studies were going. He'd had to quit, he told me. It just got too expensive, but he was planning to come back. I chatted with him for a bit, my heart squeezed in my chest. I hope that he will get back but I have my doubts. Latinos have the lowest rate of retention; if they actually drop out, as this young man did, the chances of their return drops dramatically.

This is a major problem for our community. We are running way behind the pack, and the less education our children get, the greater disadvantage they will be at as we become the largest minority in the country.

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