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A Hispanic student’s struggles

Brian D. Sabin

WASHINGTON, D.C. ” Tania Vijarro doesn’t want anyone to feel as overwhelmed as she did when she first arrived at Colorado State University. That’s one reason why she works at El Centro Student Services, a support organization for Hispanic students.

The other reason is that she needs the money to help pay tuition, room and board. Vijarro is so determined to make it through college that she works a second job as well, even while laboring to keep up with her studies.

Vijarro’s experiences typify the challenges facing young Hispanics in Colorado and elsewhere. They also underscore some of the factors that have led to chronic under-enrollment among Latinos.

During her freshman year, “I felt uncomfortable,” said Vijarro, now a 21-year-old political science major in her fourth year. “I wasn’t really talking to anybody. I didn’t know what to do.”

The transition from high school, where Vijarro said she was an A-plus student and was active in many extra-curricular activities, challenged her mind, her drive, and her identity, she said. Vijarro, who is half-Mexican and half-Korean, didn’t know where she fit in at a school that is about 6 percent Hispanic.

Colorado State enrolled its largest-ever freshman class this fall, admitting almost 5,700 new students. About 7 percent of them are Hispanic in a state where 17 percent of residents are Hispanic.

Hispanic under-enrollment isn’t limited to Fort Collins. The University of Northern Colorado’s incoming class is about 8 percent Hispanic; Weld County is almost 30 percent.

Statistics show that, proportionally, fewer Hispanics attend universities nationwide than any other group. Only three of every 10 college-aged Hispanics are enrolled in universities, said economist Richard Vedder, a member of the U.S. Department of Education’s committee on higher education.

That compares to five of 10 African-Americans, six of 10 whites, and almost eight of 10 Asians of the same age.

The committee’s report showed that 10 percent of Latinos aged 25-29 have earned bachelor’s degrees, compared with 18 percent of blacks and about one-third of whites in that age group.

“Hispanics are the single group of the American population that have lower access to college today than they did 30 years ago,” Vedder said

Cost is a huge factor. Numerous statistics show that the cost of higher education has outpaced both inflation and wages. While costs are increasing, Census statistics show that the median household income for Hispanic families is lower today than in 2000.

Vijarro said her family helps out when they can, they can’t afford to pay her tuition, much less her room and board. She works at El Centro and as a waitress to stay in school. The director of El Centro said Vijarro’s experience is typical.

“For many of our students, they have to work two jobs because their parents just don’t have the money,” Guadalupe Salazar said.

But the high cost of higher education isn’t the only challenge. The Department of Education’s committee also said a lack of information about how to apply to and pay for college also limits enrollment.

Salazar, who has directed El Centro for 14 years, and other activists for Latino education agreed.

“I think the information we need to provide is not about the college but about the resources available,” Salazar said.

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund, a national scholarship organization, began offering funds to college-bound Latinos in 1975, but spokesman Jesus Mena said “much more was needed.” In 2000 the group launched financial aid awareness workshops for Hispanic families. He said the problem has grown with accelerating immigration, as many newcomers have misconceptions about college.

“A lot of the newer families assume the school system will put [students] on a college track where they will graduate and, boom, they will go to college,” Mena said.

Vijarro is a first-generation citizen and the first in her family to attend college. Despite honor-roll grades and extra-curricular activities, Vijarro said officials at her high school were skeptical and discouraging.

“They looked at me like I was just a typically Hispanic student and I wasn’t going to make it,” Vijarro said. “It does hurt your pride because you have to look at yourself and re-identify where you’re going to be at in society.”

For a long time Vijarro didn’t think she’d go to college, and her decision to go to Colorado State “was a last minute thing.” By then it was too late for scholarships. She paid her tuition with loans and work, but struggled to adjust to college life.

Her freshman year was a flop, she said, and Vijarro had to retake several classes as a sophomore. During that year she tried out for ROTC, joined the Asian/Pacific American Student Services and El Centro, and things “started to click.” She said she scored As in classes she’d previously failed.

Today she hopes to join the Air Force after she graduates, and said she wants to help other Hispanics who are new arrivals at Colorado State.

“I’m trying to make others know what I didn’t know coming in,” Vijarro said. “If I wasn’t able to get the resources, hopefully I can get some of them to be more aware.”

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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