Updated at 3:17 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2018 to correct the misspelling of Lehigh University. Elon News Network regrets the mistake.
For senior Mirella Cisneros, attending college seemed almost impossible because of where she was from, her socio-economic background and the educational resources she had growing up. When she applied to colleges, she was stepping into the unknown with the desires of being one of the few that “makes it” in her community of Snow Hill, North Carolina.
“Since a young age I knew I wanted to go to college,” Cisneros said, “even though that was a strange concept for me because I didn’t know anyone that had gone to college. But in my household my parents always pushed us to do our best in school, and my siblings did the same.”
The college application process for Cisneros was challenging as a first-generation college student whose parents do not speak English. She had to navigate the college application process on her own. After she received her Elon University acceptance letter and did research on tuition, she said only a miracle would allow her to attend the school.
The Latino/Hispanic population is the fastest growing minority in the United States. This group has grown from 3.7 percent in 2012 at Elon to 6.4 percent in 2017. Though this growth is notable, it is not representative of the U.S. national level which is 17.8 percent.
Making it to Elon
Elon falls short in this as well as in the freshman population which is less than seven percent. The national Latino/Hispanic freshman student body which is 19.3 percent nationwide according to the The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016 report.
Sophomore Mackenzie Martinez grew up in an upper middle-class household. As a fourth-generation Latina and third-generation college student, she knew that college was always going to be an option for her. She said that the educational resources she had growing up were due to the affluent areas in which she grew up and studied.
“With my more privileged background, we lived in kind of the better school districts,” Martinez said. “We went to the better schools, we had the newer desks, we had fancy computers, and we had newer textbooks, so I feel like that definitely helped me get to where I am academically and helped push me to bring me to Elon.”
While Martinez knew she would end up in a four-year institution, Cisneros struggled to wrap her mind around the finances and the college admission process. Even when she became a teaching fellow, she did not want to get her hopes up. When she became an Odyssey scholar, a program aimed at financially and academically supporting students in her position, she still had her doubts of whether or not she would attend Elon.
“When they [Odyssey] called me to tell me I got into the program, I thought, so how much is it? How much money did I get?” Cisneros said.
Cisneros did not tell anyone that she had gotten accepted as an Odyssey scholar until she made some calls to the financial aid office, with the help of her high school principal. She came to find out she had received a full ride.
“This was what we’ve been working for,” Cisneros said. “Seeing all your work pay off because it was something that I had worked for from kindergarten to 12th grade. My only goal in life was to get to college.”
Cisneros and Martinez differ in their paths to Elon. Though on different sides of the socio-economic scale, their experiences as being the only student of color from high school in their upper level honors and AP classes to college are similar.
One of Elon’s 2018-2019 institutional priorities is to have an unprecedented university commitment to diversity and global engagement. This includes objectives and initiatives for efforts focused on global engagement, such as the Latino/Hispanic working group led by Sylvia Munoz, associate director for the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education (CREDE), and Vanessa Bravo, associate professor of communications.
As the report is on its final stages before going public, Munoz said that some of the major themes of it deal with are finding more resources for Latino/Hispanic student body, more support for them and their families from the moment they begin their application until after they graduate.
Through research, programming, surveys, focus groups among others the working group found that the admissions process for Latino/Hispanic students needs improvement so everyone like Cisneros parents who do not speak English can learn about the school through a bilingual website.
“We don’t need a mass of students to provide these services,” Munoz said. “If we have one family that needs to get all the resources that they need to be able to be at the same level as everybody.”
Being the only minority
Munoz said that once students are at Elon, orientation is also another of the themes the working group reported about and how Latino/Hispanic experiences differ inside the classroom from the student and faculty perspective. She said that faculty and staff at Elon that identify as Latino/Hispanic are 2.7 percent. Many of these are concentrated in the language and physical plant/environmental services department.
Whenever Martinez walks into a classroom for the first time, she automatically takes count of how many people of color and women are in the room and where she stands in that sense.
“I keep in mind that there are people who look at me,” Martinez said. “And there are people who may have never seen another Hispanic woman at a really expensive private university.”
For Cisneros, her experiences of being the only minority in the classroom growing up led her to become an education major. She is pursuing a career in teaching to help fix the inequality that exists in the education system, especially for Latinos and people of color in the U.S.
“There are many institutions and systems in place that kind of make it harder for people of color and for Latino students like me to be as successful as other students,” Cisneros said. “We are not completely educated on the fact that in many ways, the system is meant to work that way; it’s meant to work against you, not for your benefit.”
Randy Williams, associate vice president for campus engagement, the Latino/Hispanic, helped charge the Latino/Hispanic working group along with Brooke Barnett, associate provost.
“It’s important to have representation,” Williams said. “For all people, it’s a value to see your identities reflected in the classroom and the administration and in spaces where you receive services.”
From 2000 to 2015, the college-going rate among Hispanic high school graduates grew from 22 to 37 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. However, about 65 percent of those students go to crowded or underfunded community colleges.
“When you look at elite schools, the actual divide or gap between white students and black and Latino students has gotten wider in selective schools versus enrollment in open access schools,” Williams said.
When comparing Elon to peer institutions, the enrollment of freshmen Latino/Hispanic students is lower. The closest figure to Elon’s numbers is Ithaca College, with an enrollment of 8.3 percent. The enrollment rate is slightly higher at Lehigh University, Loyola University and the College of William and Mary, at 9.5 percent, 10.2 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. Rollins College and Santa Clara University figures are more representative of the national average, reaching 15.2 percent and 17.2 percent.
“I can’t imagine what that would have felt like to see someone that looks like you to go to college,” Cisneros said. “And feel like ‘Oh, maybe my aunt goes to college so she can help me and she can give me advice.’”
Balancing the gap
With Elon’s core values and focus on diversity, inclusion and global engagement, it is important that the school is able to analyze the growth of Latino/Hispanic students in the U.S., institutional misrepresentation of the community, and the complexity of this group’s identity to provide the tools and resources for the community.
“The working group charges to make recommendations about Elon’s policies and practices in order to make the university a more supportive academic, work, residential living environment for Latinx/Hispanic students, faculty, staff and alumni,” Williams said.
Efforts such as the working group and the merger for El Centro and the CREDE were in response to the growing number of Latino/Hispanic students. Williams said these efforts are to prepare and support these students at Elon and after graduation.
Munoz said that besides the resources the report of the working group mentions, it also highlights the need to connect with Latino/Hispanic alums and highlighting the contributions of Latinos in the U.S. Martinez says that her opportunity and success is bigger than just representation and it does not end when she graduates Elon.
“Not only do I want to succeed for myself and make my parents proud,” Martinez said, “but also make that little Hispanic girl who looks on TV and never sees anyone who looks like her, I want to make her proud.”
The working group and their report hope to start implementing their initiatives and objectives once the report is finalized. Munoz said that though Latino/Hispanics do good on paper, she knows that from their conversations and stories, their experiences may not be the best.
“This is about changing the narrative that Latinos are ‘others,’” Munoz said. “Obviously we want to concentrate on the Latino population, but hopefully the changes that are going to be made make it easier for other populations as well."