From the Barrio to the Laboratory Four Hispanic Students at MIT Are a Long Way from Their High School on the Texas Border

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

From the Barrio to the Laboratory Four Hispanic Students at MIT Are a Long Way from Their High School on the Texas Border


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


ALBERT MARTINEZ had never even heard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) until he was a junior in high school back in El Paso, Texas.

Now the 17-year-old Mexican citizen is completing his first year at MIT along with three Mexican-American classmates from his high school. He is the first person in his family to attend college.

When five students from El Paso's Ysleta High School were accepted to MIT last year, it made national news.

MIT had never accepted so many students from one public school. Furthermore, Ysleta is a poor school near the Mexican border with a 95 percent Hispanic population. Only 30 percent of its graduates attend college.

"We didn't even have AP {advanced placement} courses at our school for math and science," Mr. Martinez says. "Almost everybody else {here at MIT} came from {public} magnet schools or private schools."

Nationwide, only 18 percent of college-age Hispanics are enrolled in four-year colleges, compared with 34 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks, according to the American Council on Education in Washington. The high school dropout rate for Hispanics, at more than 35 percent, is higher than those for other ethnic groups.

DURING the past several years, many colleges have intensified their efforts to attract Hispanic students through increased scholarships, aggressive recruiting, and improved support services.

John Blackburn, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says his university is now taking the same approach to recruiting Hispanics as it did to recruiting blacks in the 1970s and 1980s. All Hispanics offered admission to the university receive personalized letters from current Hispanic students. Once they enroll, students can find support through a student group, La Sociedad Hispanics.

Many schools have hired Hispanic recruitment officers to make trips to the West and Southwest. They often go into Latino families' homes and make a more favorable impact if they speak Spanish and understand cultural differences.

At the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Assistant Director of Admissions Maria Llopiz greets callers with a voice-mail message in Spanish. Ms. Llopiz is working with local Hispanic groups to identify applicants for the school's four new full-tuition scholarships.

Yet recruitment and retention of Hispanic students at colleges nationwide has been only partly successful. Cultural and economic barriers persist.

Many Hispanic parents have not experienced the economic benefits of higher education in America. In the Hispanic culture, family is often given the highest priority. Many parents are opposed to sending their children - especially girls - far from home, even for an education.

Although five El Paso students were accepted by MIT last year, only four enrolled at the school. Alicia Ayala went to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) instead.

"She wanted to leave with her parents' blessing, but they wouldn't give it to her," says Enrique Arzaga, one of the MIT students from El Paso. …

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