Hispanic students experience unique challenges, benefits at K-State


Most would agree that in today’s society, obtaining a college education is a necessary step to a successful career. While attending college after high school graduation has been on the radar for many students since the day they were born, that is not the case for everyone.

According to a June 26, 2012, Deseret News article by Mercedes White, white adults are two times as likely as U.S.-born Hispanic adults to receive a bachelor’s degree and four times as likely as foreign-born Hispanics.

K-State’s student body demographic contains low Hispanic student enrollment, but that trend is changing.

While it is true that the K-State student population consists of a wide variety of demographics, the ratios of this ethnic mosaic often stun prospective Hispanic students. In 2008, only 756 of the 23,520 students enrolled at K-State were of Hispanic descent. Four years later, Hispanic students account for 1,290 of the 24,378 students at the university — still only 5 percent of the entire student population.

Elbert Rosales, junior in social work, feels that Hispanic students at K-State face constant challenges.

“I think we still kind of face being the minority in a pretty white-dominant classroom,” Rosales said.

However, he said sometimes this awareness can be an educational and empowering experience.

“It’s kind of unique, because you learn how to interact when you’re the only minority around people,” Rosales said. “It also makes you open up and not be scared to talk to people who are not your color, your race or your ethnicity.”

Karem Roman, senior in family studies and human services, agreed that attending the university has been a major adjustment after growing up in what she considers to be a fairly well-rounded and balanced community in Garden City, Kan.

“It was a culture shock,” Roman said. “It really was. In Garden City, we’re known for our diversity. We celebrate Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and Irish and German holidays, so I feel like we’re very cultured.”

Roman added that she occasionally feels that the white population at K-State harbors fear when it comes to learning about Hispanic culture, which she attributes to uncertainty about how to breach the topic.

“Here, people are kind of scared to ask you about your culture,” Roman said. “They’re scared to even interact with you. They’ve never even met Hispanics before, sometimes, so they’re just like, ‘I don’t know how to approach you.'”

Madaí Rivera, coordinator of Academic Services and Diversity for the College of Human Ecology, said she thinks groups of students from different cultures and backgrounds should have a give-and-take relationship.

“We need to reach out and approach,” Rivera said. “There are lots of fliers posted about events and everyone is, of course, always welcome, but perhaps we need to reach out a little farther. At the same time, the other populations need to be seeking those opportunities. I think it’s the understanding that we all have our own culture that can be celebrated throughout the year and learned about.”

Rivera, who attended K-State before returning to serve as an administrator, also dealt with the problem of cultural assumptions as an undergraduate. These misconceptions still tend to hinder individuals from completely understanding people of other backgrounds, she said.

Rivera told the story of a class she attended as a student in which the professor, perhaps unintentionally, made a presumptuous comment about her religious practices based on a judgment of her ethnicity.

“I remember him saying, ‘Well you’re Hispanic, so you’re Catholic! Tell us how you celebrate this,’ and I was like, ‘Well, actually, I’m not Catholic,'” Rivera said.

She said the racial assumption was minor, but she still sees the same issues reoccurring today across a broad spectrum of minority groups on campus.

Another issue is the struggle that undocumented individuals are faced with when it comes to funding education. Students who do not have a social security number are ineligible for financial aid and work permits, making college an even more challenging endeavor financially.

Concerned campus administrators have come together in recent years, with the help of an immigration attorney, to help devise solutions for these individuals to receive the grants, loans and part-time jobs necessary to pay for their books, tuition and living expenses.

Rivera, who was a member of the pioneering group, expressed her gratitude for those in positions of power who have been so willing to assist the Hispanic population.

“It’s a benefit to be here and know that we have people here who want to help,” Rivera said.

While there are many challenges that Hispanic students face when attending a large university like K-State, the world of education is, slowly but surely, making progress. Although a large portion of Hispanic students currently attending college are first-generation students, more elementary and middle school teachers are now discussing the topic of college with their students, Rosales said.

“Now, we’re starting to talk to middle school students and getting younger Hispanics to start thinking about college,” Rosales said. “Before that, we waited until we were in high school to learn about college. It’s a very important thing in our society today to go to college, and now we’re getting students interested early, and that has kind of become helpful in getting more [college] students.”

K-State’s population of Hispanic students is not large, but they have the support of several student organizations. Through student organizations such as the Hispanic American Leadership Organization and the League of United Latin American Citizens, as well as through fraternities and sororities like Sigma Lambda Beta and Sigma Lambda Gamma, students find the community and leadership they need throughout their university experience.

Johnny Varela, senior in business education, said having that guidance and support from staff, administration and peers is a major reason that he has been successful at K-State so far. Varela said he feels that the university has welcomed him with open arms.

“One thing I’ve noticed about K-State is that it’s really friendly,” Varela said. “I really appreciate that here at K-State, it’s not just that you’re Latino or of any other ethnicity. Here at school, it feels like we’re all together. Like one big family.”