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Few Latinos in college, but even fewer teachers

by Adriana Diaz
June 08, 2010


Multicultural faculty needed for the benefit of all students

A program that was established by the Illinois General Assembly in 2004 awards money every year to 100 graduate students, with the goal of increasing the number of minority full-time tenure track faculty and staff at the state’s universities and colleges. However, budget cuts have affected funding for the Diversifying Higher Education Faculty Fellowship Program.


Arthur Soria, 23, graduated from DePaul University last year with bachelors of fine arts in acting. Soria, who lives in Logan Square, was raised in New Jersey and comes from a multi-racial and multi-cultural family. Ecuadorian on his biological father’s side, Soria said he grew up within the Dominican culture when his mother, a Brazilian-Italian immigrant, married his stepfather.


Although he considers himself Latino, Soria acknowledges that ethnic identity is a complex issue.


“There are no clear cut labels anymore,” he said. Soria points out that there are many people like him in universities and colleges and those institutions of higher learning should have faculty and staff that more accurately reflect that.


Soria said while he had great professors, who happened to be Black and Latino, he most identified with one particular mentor who came from a multi-racial background similar to his own.


For those interested in the Diversifying Higher Education Faculty Fellowship Program call                               217-55...               .

When Gilberto Magaña hit a rough spot in his last semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he decided to take a break to deal with a personal crisis. Magaña never anticipated that break would last five years.

But even though the odds were against him, he returned to school and graduated from UIC with a bachelor’s degree in communications before he turned 30.

Low Latino graduation rates are a a national problem, with many schools failing to graduate even half of their Latino students in six years, according to a study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute.

The institute studied graduation rates and found that schools with higher Latino graduation ratesoften emphasize the value of building a sense of community among its Latino students, faculty and staff.

In Illinois, programs like the “Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services Program,” also known as LARES, at UIC, and Northeastern Illinois University’s “Proyecto Pa’Lante” were developed as a strategy to increase Latino enrollment and to focus on graduation once students arrive.

Despite these efforts, Latinos still hold far fewer college degrees in relation to population than other minority groups in Illinois.

Higher education advocates point out that, in part, building that sense of community among Latinos is difficult without employing more Latinos as faculty and staff.

Leonard Ramirez, director of the LARES program, said Latino professors can help to cultivate a sense of belonging for Latino students.

Ramirez said he’s seen Latino professors and staff serve as mentors helping Latino students, who are often first-generation college attendees, navigate the system. Moreover, they will often introduce to students the idea of advanced degrees, usually something that was not ever considered.

“It’s direct and indirect,” Ramirez said about the impact Latino faculty can have on campus. “Sometimes it’s just the presence of a faculty member that can make people feel more supported, that there’s someone they can go to.”

Elizabeth Ortiz, vice-president of institutional diversity and equity at DePaul University, agrees with Ramirez. She said the world of academia is a very isolating place for Latinos.

“This is the subtle message that our students get,” she said. “There’s no one there that looks like them.”

The latest data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education shows that Latinos make up a tiny fraction of all faculty employed at public universities and community colleges. Less than 3.5 percent of full-time faculty are Latino despite the fact that Latinos make up 15 percent of the Illinois population.

“The same barriers to success, the same obstacles that are in place for students of color, are in place for faculty and staff of color,” Ortiz said. “Even after we make it, we still haven’t made it. We have to be twice as good. We have to work twice as hard. We’re judged on different standards.”

Ortiz, who also serves as president of the Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education, said her life’s work was inspired to some extent by naysayers. Ortiz, a third-generation Chicagoan of Mexican descent, said when she was growing up she didn’t think of herself as college material.

She said she fell victim to her high school’s tracking system that in theory separates students by academic ability. Tracking has been criticized by some scholars and studies have shown many students, often minorities, are mis-assigned to lower-track classes.

Ortiz said her teachers and high school counselor had low expectations for her, and it was understood she wouldn’t be going on to college.

“When I got to college and I started taking some psychology courses and some history courses and I got involved in student activism I realized what happened to me was discrimination,” Ortiz said. “I realized I was sorted, I was tracked as a low-achiever and that was what expected for me.”

Ortiz, who holds a doctorate from Northern Illinois University and credits her parents with insisting she get a college education, said it’s important for her to serve as a role model for Latino students.

“It’s really interesting, when I go talk to students they say, ‘Oh you made it, it must have been easy for you.’ But no, I just got my doctorate last year,” Ortiz said. “I’ve worked my whole life to be the role model. To give education, to show our young people that if I can do it, they can do it.”

Magaña, a first-generation college graduate and a LARES program alumnus, also said his parents were key in his decision to go to college. But Magaña also acknowledges that having Latino mentors played a part in his completing his degree, noting one professor in particular.

“If anything what she did teach me was that there really was an underrepresentation of Latinos in, for example, the media, in universities, in colleges,” Magaña said. “And she always encouraged us to continue our degree.”