Hispanics head for higher ed 

Especially in Northwest Arkansas.

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Gema Vargas, 20, will be a senior at UALR in the 2006-07 school year. She came to this country as a child. Her father, who had fled a war in Nicaragua, got a job in Arkansas, then brought his family up. Because they were considered war refugees, the Vargas family got the necessary papers to stay here comparatively easily, Vargas said. She said that a majority of Latino college-age students in the U.S. don’t have papers, which means they’re here illegally.

Vargas speaks English fluently — although, she says, she sometimes has to search for the right word. She knew only a few English words when she arrived in Little Rock, but she passed the examinations to be enrolled in the second grade. She attended a public elementary school through the fifth grade. “I had good teachers,” she said. “They took pains to work with me.” She attended public schools in Bryant for grades six through nine, then enrolled at Mount St. Mary, a Catholic girls school in Little Rock. She graduated from there in 2003. There were few Latino pupils at Bryant or St. Mary’s, she said.

She chose UALR for college because it was close to home. “In the Hispanic culture, a student lives with her parents until she’s married,” she said. She speaks Spanish at home. “That’s true in most Hispanic households.”

She has a double major in biology and Spanish. She’s not sure what she wants after UALR, although med school and pharmacy school are possibilities. She has a LULAC scholarship and “a few others” that help with expenses, including a UALR leadership scholarship for community service. She’s worked at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, St. Vincent Infirmary, and the Little Rock Zoo. Through LULAC, she tutors a few kids. (The League of United Latin American Citizens is a national Hispanic rights group with chapters in Arkansas.)

Ask Vargas who her friends are at UALR, who she hangs out with, and her answers become slow and faltering.

“People tend to put you in groups — Hispanic, African-American, white, whatever,” she said. “Hispanics tend to stick together like the other groups do.” Even after all the years she’s spent in Arkansas? “We still don’t fit. We don’t know where we belong.”

UALR does “a pretty good job of celebrating different cultures, trying to get students to mix. Hispanic week helps students in other cultures understand Hispanics,” Vargas said. She belongs to the Spanish Club, the Biology Club, and Friends, an organization of international students who go bowling together, eat together, and such. They don’t go to Nicaraguan restaurants, though. There are none in Little Rock.

Late in the interview, Vargas returned to the subject of not fitting in, fearful that her remarks might be misinterpreted. What she means, she says, is that “I’m still Hispanic. I can live here 20 or 30 years and I’ll still be Hispanic. African-Americans are proud of their heritage, and so are other groups. Asians will always be Asians.”

She used to visit Nicaragua every year, but the demands of college made that more difficult. Someday, she might go back to Nicaragua to live. “I’m interested in helping people. With an education, I could do it.”

She is not the first member of her family to attend college, incidentally, just the first to attend college in the U.S. Her father, who works in a factory, was a biology teacher back home. Her mother was a chemist.

Vargas says that immigration is a big issue in the USA, and that she understands both sides of it. Her remarks make plain which side she’s on. Hispanics come here because there are no jobs in Latin America, she said. “All immigrants want is a job at a decent wage so they can support their families, here and at home. A Hispanic family includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, everybody.”

A wall to keep Hispanics out? If the USA is going to have a wall on its Southern border, it should have one on the northern border as well.

Immigrants take jobs from Americans? “I don’t see anybody here wanting to pick berries for $5.15 an hour. If North Americans don’t want the jobs, let other people have them.”

Only the immigrants who are here legally should be allowed to stay? Immigration laws make it difficult to get visas, so people have to come in illegally. “And children don’t really have a choice. Their parents bring them.”

Hispanics take college scholarships away from Americans? “If a Hispanic student graduates from high school with a 4.0, why not give him a scholarship instead of a white student with a 2.5? It’s all about being fair.”

When Martha Cortes arrived in Rogers, she spoke no English and had no friends. “There weren’t as many Hispanics here then as there are now. Very often I was depressed and homesick. It’s difficult to even go to the store when you don’t speak the language. I needed to do something different.”

Cortes, now 33, came to Arkansas from Durango, Mexico, following her husband. When they got married in Mexico, he already had a job in Rogers. She came north with him “because there are not many opportunities for employment in Mexico.” Thirteen years later, they’re still married and have three children.

The “something different” Cortes needed was enrolling in an English-as-a-second-language class at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. “I started evening classes at the NWACC Adult Education Center at the beginning level, and then with my practice and good attendance I moved to upper levels.”

At the same time, she was on a list of immigrants waiting for work permits so that they could work legally. She had to wait five years for a permit. Then she was hired at the first place she applied for a job, the Rogers School District. “I worked there for three years, but working as a janitor just encouraged me to keep working on my English skills.” Today, she speaks English well.

When the chance to work part-time at the NWACC Adult Education Center came along, she jumped at it. The new job increased her work skills and her self-esteem. Now she has a full-time job at the center as a secretary and receptionist. She’s still taking classes at NWACC and hopes to earn an associate’s degree in art, then transfer to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for a bachelor’s degree in social work. After that, she says, she’ll “probably work in the schools.”

Last month, Cortes was a featured speaker at an announcement that NWACC was beginning its first capital campaign in the school’s 17-year-history. The college hopes to raise $16 million in the next year. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. got the ball rolling with a $4 million contribution, the largest ever received by NWACC. Cortes’ talk was appropriate not only because of her own success, but because NWACC had more Latino students last fall than any other institution of higher learning in Arkansas. With 421 Latinos in a total enrollment of 5,467, roughly 8 percent, NWACC is well ahead of most of the other schools, and way ahead of some. Because of a booming economy and a need for workers, Northwest Arkansas has had a bigger influx of Latinos than any other part of the state. But NWACC’s much-larger neighbor, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, had only 372 Latinos in a total enrollment of around 17,000. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock had 230 in an enrollment of 11,896. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff showed a 40 percent increase in Latino students, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds. It means that UAPB’s Latino enrollment increased from 5 to 7.

NWACC recruits Hispanic students, according to Jim Hall, executive director for public relations: “They’re an important part of the community in Northwest Arkansas, and our mission is to bring higher education to Northwest Arkansas.”

Except for NWACC, the increase in Latino enrollment at Arkansas colleges and universities is less than what one might expect, considering that the state’s Latino population grew 51 percent over the last five years, to 130,846, while the total state population grew only 4 percent, to 2.78 million. Arkansas’s Latino population grew at a faster rate than any other state’s.

There are reasons why the Latino higher-education enrollment hasn’t grown as fast as the number of Latinos in the general population. Most of the immigrants don’t have a lot of money, and college requires money. Unlike Vargas, many don’t have a tradition of higher education in their families, and they do have a willingness to take whatever job they can get, since it’s still better than what they could get in their native country.

But as time goes by, the Hispanics will want to move from low-paying jobs to higher-paying jobs, and they’ll recognize the importance of higher education in doing so.

They’ve also got some important people in higher education on their side. In the 2005 legislative session, state Rep. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock sponsored a bill that would have required that any Arkansas high school graduate living in the state — including the children of illegal immigrants — be classified as an in-state student for purposes of tuition at state-supported colleges and universities. Tuition for out-of-state students is about twice as much. Similar legislation has been enacted in other states.

Elliott’s bill passed the House of Representatives, but failed by two votes in the Senate. Nonetheless, the president of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, Lu Hardin, announced recently that UCA is instituting such a policy on its own. He said it was the right thing to do. “These students have legitimately graduated from an Arkansas high school, are living in the State of Arkansas and are directly or indirectly paying taxes, through rent or withheld state income taxes.” As in-staters, the students will pay UCA tuition of about $6,000 a year. Out-of-state tuition would be around $11,000.

“The only stipulation that will be put on these students is that they actively pursue the legalization of his/her immigration status. UCA has checks and balances in place to insure that the process is being followed and pursued as a student progresses through the University.”

Immediately after Hardin’s announcement, UALR said that it had initiated a similar policy some time back. Other state colleges and universities are likely to do the same, if they haven’t already.

Last month, UALR received a $1.3 million grant for a five-year program to improve graduation and retention rates for low-income and minority students. It’s not aimed exclusively at Latinos, some of whom arrive on campus with a limited command of English, but they’ll be among the major beneficiaries.

Hardin’s announcement is particularly interesting because he’s a former state senator himself, a politician before he was a university president. He has a good feel for what will fly and what won’t in public policy in Arkansas.

The immigrants also have numbers on their side. Based on current first-grade enrollment figures, a recent report from the Southern Regional Education Board predicted that the Hispanic share of Arkansas high-school graduates will increase from 5 percent to 27 percent over the next 12 years. Already, there are school districts in Arkansas where the Hispanic population in the lower grades is nearing 50 percent.

Hispanic enrollment at Arkansas colleges and universities almost certainly will increase dramatically in the not-too-distant future. Maybe one day, when people call the Hogs, they’ll mean the soccer team.


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