Campus News Georgia Impact

Latino students aim to buck higher education trend

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.”

The words of farm labor activist Cesar Chavez rang true this month as UGA’s Students for Latino Empowerment made a case for higher education to about 40 students at ¡Si Se Puede!

The event was a 12-hour conference for junior high and high school Latinos that focused on the importance of college and community leadership. The title, a line from Chavez, translates to “Yes you can,” which is a message Marissa Maldonado says is important for young Latinos to hear.

“You have a problem with college, especially with the children whose parents are migrant workers because they want their children to work and help out the family,” she says. “And when the parents haven’t been to college, a lot of times the children don’t know what to do or think they won’t be able to pay for it.”

Maldonado handles publicity for SLE, which became an official club in fall 2004. It’s the brainchild of a group of Latino students searching for a way to reach back into their communities and effect change.

“Even if we get one kid to change their mind and say ‘Yes, I want to go to college,’ it’s worth it,” Maldonado says.

Sure. But the group’s long-term goal is more subtle and aspiring. The students hope to drive down the staggering 35 percent high school dropout rate for Latino students.

About 775,000 students in Georgia elementary and high schools are Latino, but less than 10 percent complete college, according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The reasons are manifold: perceived obligations to work, inadequate preparation during school, financial strain, language barriers.

The concerns are valid, Maldonado admits, but so are the options. At the conference, leaders passed out information about scholarships and financial aid, gave tips on how to build an attractive résumé and apply to colleges, advised the group on how to speak with their parents about college and assuaged worries about legal resident status.

“We hope they take this back to the community and talk about it. If they can plant the seed so that even if they’re the oldest child and they have to go to work and help out their families, maybe someone will hear them talking and think about it,” Maldonado says. “Or maybe they’ll stay in and finish high school. At the end of the day the diploma is very important. It’s the first step.”

Stephanie Garcia, 14, is ready. The Mundy Mill High School freshman has looked at colleges and loaded up on encouragement. Her cousin, Beatriz Velez, who chairs external functions for SLE, was the first in the family to go to college. Garcia hopes to be the second.

“I need to join different clubs and organizations and start making a good résumé for when I apply,” she says. “I want to have a better life and be successful so I don’t have to work as hard as my parents do.”

At UGA, the number of Latino students has been on the rise the past two years. The rate rose 2 percent in 2004 and crept another 1.9 percent in 2005, bringing the total to 635 students. But for the fastest-growing segment of the population, that’s a small bump.

Other SLE programs bring Latino students to campus to shadow older students and provide one-on-one attention to hopeful college applicants. The conference was the first of its kind, but the group plans to do it again next year. . . with a bigger crowd.