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Supporting Latino Students in Higher Education: what that really looks like.

Manuela Salazar
Executive Director of Latino Leadership Initiative
Marian University
Indiana

When I moved to this country, I never thought that life would surprise me by giving me the opportunity to work for my Latino community and that I would find my true passion. My name is Manuela Salazar, and I work at Marian University as Executive Director of the Latino Leadership Initiative.  

When I accepted this position, I was certain that this initiative was a great challenge, but I was willing to take it on with all the professionalism and love to do something I truly believe in and have faith in. I arrived in the United States as an adult, I was 30 years old and had my career in Colombia, so I did not know much about the university experience in this country. Even having done my master’s degree here in the United States, I knew the experience as an adult is very different from the experience faced by millions of young Latinos who, although they arrived as children to this country or are born here, still have a different story when it comes to going to college. 

The first thing I wanted to understand was just that.  My task was to find out what Latino families lived and experienced when their children decided to go to college. What are the barriers Latinos face when seeking higher education? What are the questions and concerns that arise for parents? Well, I started precisely by inquiring about the steps to follow when a young person makes the decision to go to a university. 

Not knowing what to do and where to go to ask for information came first. Assuming I didn’t speak English, where would I go to ask these questions? What is the first thing I should understand about education in this country? How do I translate, not only into Spanish, but to our culture, what is this process? I started by looking at what other institutions that serve the Latino community are doing, and how to support my students. 

There were many calls I received from parents who, as soon as they heard about this initiative, decided to pick up the phone or come to my office to get more information on understanding their student’s GPA and  how to interpret the financial offer letter of the University, or how payments should be made and what differences there are between scholarships and loans and between high school and the University. 

It’s important to understand that there are many barriers, such as financial, not knowing how to pay for tuition, books, transportation, food, housing on campus, or knowing exactly what steps to follow for the process of applying to the university, filling out the forms, submitting transcripts of academic notes, writing essays, applying for scholarships, immigration status and understanding that this is just the beginning of many other steps that must be followed in this task of not only being accepted to the University, but of graduating successfully. 

Among all the barriers that Latinos face, it is not only not knowing when or how to apply to universities. Once students enter the University, they face many other challenges that are sometimes not mentioned or taken into consideration. What are those other invisible barriers that are often not talked about? Let’s start with family expectations.  

Many of the Latino students are first-generation students, which means that they are the first in their families to access higher education, and as a result many times they do not have help from their parents, not because their parents do not want to, but because they do not know how. Many times, trying to seek support is not always easy. Because many times these students are in charge of solving many issues at home. They are the ones parents turn to for solutions, not vice versa. 

Many also have certain responsibilities in their homes because in multiple cases they are the only ones who speak the language and must serve as translators for their parents. Many young people are the main contact of their families in health care centers, financial institutions, utility accounts, are interpreters of legal issues, school, among many others. 

Many young people also support their families financially, they work before or after school either to help their parents pay rent, food, transportation, and even their own school. In many cases they must also take care of their younger siblings when they get home, they must cook, or do household chores while their parents go to work and yet still complete their homework and prepare for their classes in the morning. Because of this many do not have the full experience of what it is like to be a college student. They just don’t have time to do it.  

Many cannot stay after school to socialize, to play sports, or to join a club. Many do not participate in extracurricular activities or take advantage of other services such as tutoring, counseling, or mentoring. This last one, mentoring, is something we’re working on at Marian, not only taking Latino students to different high schools so that other students like them see that it’s po possible to go to college but connecting those same mentors with Latino professionals in the city who can share their own experience of how they got where they are, their challenges, difficulties and successes, and that motivates them to continue and not faint in the face of adversity. We need these students to see leaders and professionals who understand their culture, speak their language, look like them, and understand the weight they carry on their shoulders to meet family, school, and personal expectations. These professionals who at some point lived similar experiences and who also fought just as they do now. This is also part of our efforts in Professional Development, offering networking opportunities, showing them the importance of making themselves known and interacting with other people who can help them in the future, a future that will not only change their lives but those of their families. 

And speaking of families, they play a vital role in this whole process. Parents want to be part of this stage in their child’s life. They want to know what the best way is to support their children, and although many of them may not have had the opportunity to go to a University, they want to understand how they can contribute to the success of their children. They want to celebrate their triumphs and be there to support them when experiencing difficulties. That is why at Marian University, we formed the group of Familias Unidas; what it seeks is precisely that to create a community of support in which parents feel welcome on campus, where they can celebrate their roots and culture and where they can share their experiences and fears. 

Parents can ask questions of other parents, thus contributing to their community and encouraging their students more and more. The dream of having a better life, greater opportunities, and fulfilling dreams is through education, and parents want their children to achieve success. Which parent does not want to see their child happy? 

In these four years that I have been in this position, I have had the privilege of supporting students and their families in this process, which although has not been easy, it is quite gratifying when it is possible for a Latino student to not only be accepted into the University, but also to see them graduate and dedicate this triumph to their families, thanking not only their parents for the support, but also God. 

The graduation season is the most satisfying, and this past year in particular, I had the opportunity to celebrate those students who started just as I started working at Marian. Seeing that all their sacrifices were worth it filled me with pride; seeing them now as professionals making a difference and positively impacting the world makes me happy; that is my greatest motivation. To see that what I do every day impacts the lives of students and their families.  

One thing I want to remind those students who face disparities and immigration injustice. Do not give up, do not lose faith, because I have also seen the cases of those undocumented students who when they began their first year, were without hope, but in those four years, something changed and now they have received their residence, asylum, or citizenship, opening even more doors and opportunities. The fact that they are undocumented today does not mean that this cannot change in the future; there are countless embraces and tears of celebration that I have witnessed and that I, myself, have lived because faith cannot be lost, and life takes many turns. 

Latinos are proof of the resilience of a people who only want better opportunities, who work hard and honestly because these young people are the future of this country, and because according to the 2020 census, Hispanics / Latinos represent 19% of the population of the United States and growing 23% since 2010. 

This is why this work is so important because supporting the new generations of Latino students goes beyond what is seen in the news. It is what is lived day by day in the classroom, with the sacrifices of students and families, and with the faith that this country of opportunities will open many doors to make the world a better place. Because I believe in them, I see their talent and their great value every day. I see the potential and desire to make a difference, and I firmly believe that this should be intentional work and done with love. 

Executive Director of Latino Leadership at Marian University | Website

Born and raised in Colombia, Manuela earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and
social communication from the University of Manizales in Colombia. She also holds a
Master’s degree in Leadership Development from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in
Terre Haute, Indiana.

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