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Originally published Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State colleges make a major push to reach Latino booming population

In the two decades ending in 2007, the number of white, non-Hispanic K-12 students grew by 6 percent, while the number of Hispanic students soared by 372 percent. Yet Latino students continue to languish near the bottom in the rankings for high-school achievement and college attendance, in a system that often isn't geared to meet their needs.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

CHENEY, Spokane County — It took Victor Rodríguez three months last year to convince one Latino couple that their daughter could thrive at Eastern Washington University.

The dad had all sorts of concerns: "Can you imagine her being out until 10 o'clock at night?" Rodríguez recalls him asking before finally agreeing she could attend.

Rodríguez, who works at Eastern helping new students making the transition to university life, said it's not uncommon to find such hesitation among immigrant families. But the state's universities are reaching out to them with mentors, recruitment programs and social activities.

And with good reason. The growth in the numbers of young Latinos in this state is staggering. In the two decades ending in 2007, the number of white, non-Hispanic K-12 students grew by 6 percent, while the number of Hispanic students soared by 372 percent. By 2030, Latinos are projected to become the first minority group in Washington to top 1 million residents.

Yet Latino students continue to languish near the bottom in the rankings for high-school achievement and college attendance, in a system that often isn't geared to meet their needs.

Many immigrant Latino families find the U.S. education system daunting. Some parents, like the couple Rodríguez encountered, remain particularly protective of their children. Some families are struggling financially to the point that their children need to work. And many believe they can't afford to pay for college — often without knowing about scholarships and resources that may be available.

Despite the obstacles, universities across the state are seeing a surge in the number of Latino students because of the demographic changes.

At the University of Washington, nearly 5 percent of undergraduates are Latino; at Washington State University it's 5.5 percent; at Central Washington University, it's 7.2 percent. The universities are figuring out ways to accommodate these students and reach out to more.

At WSU, 50 mentors in the Office of Multicultural Student Services work with hundreds of minority freshmen, many of them Hispanic, to help students navigate the university system and keep up with their academic work.

At the UW, the federally funded "Two Valleys — One Vision" program has exposed thousands of low-income teens from the Yakima and Skagit valleys to the possibilities of higher education. UW students have also started groups like the Hispanic Business Student Association to expand their professional networks when they graduate.

But if any public university is building a niche among Hispanic students, it may be Eastern. The college has found itself on the leading edge of the state's demographic shift, with Latinos now making up 9 percent of undergraduates — a higher proportion than at any other public university in the state.

Hub of campus life

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At Eastern, the Chicano Education Program buzzes with chatter. In one room, four students are getting extra help in math: "What do you want to do with the X?" asks tutor Constantino Montes, as he launches into a discussion of ratios, integers and rational numbers.

The Chicano center at Eastern is a hub for Latino life on campus. Office manager Lupe Cannon can often be found in the kitchen making tortillas and tamales from scratch, sometimes for 200 people. It's a way, she says, to make the students feel more at ease in an unfamiliar college environment.

Hispanic students at Eastern also are staking a claim to the university experience through the Greek system. Students formed a Latina-based sorority, Kappa Delta Chi, three years ago. The guys followed suit last year by launching a fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta.

Jannette Serrano, Kappa Delta Chi's president last year, said 32 women have signed up and meet twice a week for dinners, chapter meetings and birthdays. The aim, she said, is for the sorority to have its own house after a mandatory 10-year stand-down period.

"It gives us more connection between Latinas in school. It's more of a support system for us," said sorority sister Veaney Martinez. "There are lots of benefits — not just socially, but also careerwise."

In many ways, the cultural change at Eastern started at the top. Three years ago, the university's trustees hired a new president, Rodolfo Arévalo, who previously worked at universities in Texas and California. He is the son of migrant laborers from south Texas who worked in the orchards in Walla Walla and the Yakima Valley.

Acting Provost Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted recalls the impact Arévalo made last year when he arranged a dinner in Othello, Adams County, for 200 people, many of them migrant families.

"He told his story in Spanish, and the room was just still," she said. "We passed out every single brochure. And we had a couple of hundred of them."

Arévalo, who is currently on medical leave while recovering from cancer treatment, said he likes to travel to places like the Yakima Valley to recruit students who may not otherwise be thinking about college.

"I try to use myself as a role model," he said. "It plays well with students and their parents."

Arévalo said the university is trying to attract students from every ethnic and socio-economic background, although it makes sense that a big part of the effort reaches the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Eastern, with more than 9,000 students, is not the first university in Washington to attract significant numbers of Hispanic students. The private Heritage University in Toppenish, Yakima County, has 1,500 students, about half of whom are Latino.

Zeisler-Vralsted said she doesn't fear Eastern will become known in Washington as the public university option for Hispanic students because the overall numbers still aren't that large. And even if it does, she said, that may not be a bad thing.

Flush with determination

In a report to state lawmakers last month, UW assistant professor Frances Contreras noted that while Latinos now account for about 15 percent of all public-school students, they make up only 2.7 percent of teachers.

Latino parents and students have the same desire for a college education as their peers, Contreras found, but often lack effective role models and guidance. What's needed, she concluded, is more support at every level, from kindergarten through college.

Latino families new to the U.S. often achieve more educational success than second- and third-generation families, she said. That's because new immigrants tend to arrive with great determination and hope.

Yet first-generation students can face an uncertain future even if they make it to college. A small number are undocumented "1079" students — so-named after a 2003 state law that allows them to pay in-state tuition at college even though they aren't in the U.S. legally. The 1079 students, however, aren't eligible for any kind of federal financial aid and often struggle to pay for tuition and board.

Pedro, a 1079 student at Eastern who is finishing a degree in education, said his parents came to the U.S. to work on the farms in Zillah, Yakima County, seven years ago. He's paid for college by landing a private scholarship and working long hours at a debt-collection agency, he said. He's considering staying in school to obtain a master's degree, he said, because his immigration status won't allow him to work as a teacher.

But for people like Rodríguez, the Eastern employee who helps new students adjust, education holds the key to leaving behind the life of manual labor. Growing up, Rodríguez worked picking apples and cherries.

"I hated it," he said. "At 15, I rebelled. I told my dad I'm not going back to the fields. I told him I'm going to work for McDonald's, and that I'm going to own a BMW."

Rodríguez did end up working part-time for McDonald's for six years. He went to Yakima Valley Community College, then on to Eastern where he earned a bachelor's degree and where he is now working on a master's. He was chosen to be on the selection committee that picked Arévalo as president. His goal is to one day become a university president himself.

And the BMW?

He's owned two of them over the years, as much to prove something to his dad as to himself. But he's traded them in. These days, he said, he's not as concerned with material possessions as he is with developing his mind.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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