Texas educators want more Hispanics to earn diplomas

By: Patrick McGee
September 27, 2004, Monday
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Nearly 292,000 Hispanics enrolled in Texas colleges in 2003, far behind the state's goal of 340,000 enrollments by 2005. Blacks have already met their 2005 enrollment goal, and whites have far surpassed theirs.

Hispanics' success in college is crucial because they make up a third of Texas' population, according to the 2000 Census. They're the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state and are expected to be the majority by 2027.

Four Mexican-American Texans know firsthand what it takes to overcome the obstacles. They went to college despite coming from poor families. And they now lead efforts to enroll more Hispanics in college. Here are their stories and suggestions for how to get more college diplomas in Hispanic hands.

Michele Bobadilla University of Texas at Arlington, associate vice president for outreach services Michele Bobadilla says the combination of hearing her grandmother's encouragement and seeing the hardships she had because she didn't have an education inspired her to go to college.

Bobadilla, 49, of Garland, remembers her grandmother incessantly talking about the importance of going to college.

"She always stressed that to all of us," said Bobadilla, who was raised in Dallas. "Education was always very important to her although they were migrants and they were very poor."

Bobadilla graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches in 1977 with a degree in English and Spanish. Two years later, she earned a Community MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She's working on a Ph.D. in educational administration from Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Bobadilla is UT-Arlington's associate vice president for outreach services. She's won awards for her vigorous promotion of higher education and outreach to Hispanics, mostly in Dallas schools.

She gives presentations, meets with students and families individually and has an arsenal of learning materials for different ages and levels of literacy.

To get more Hispanics into college, Bobadilla said Hispanics with degrees need to tell students and families about the value of higher education.

"We have to share our stories with anybody and everybody who will listen," she said.

Bobadilla said she's also in favor of more academic rigor. She said that schools should offer more difficult classes and that parents should push their children to take them.

"That's key. If you prepare yourself academically, so many doors will open for you," she said. "College is affordable ... but you have to do your part by preparing yourself academically."

As a teen-ager, Raymund Paredes went to the El Paso Public Library to pore over college catalogs. It was a self-directed pursuit that led him to the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated in 1964 with an English degree.

His parents both graduated from high school and always stressed education.

"He drove a bakery truck, and he would take my brother and me along, and all he would ever talk about was going to college. It was never an option; it was just expected," Paredes said.

After college graduation, Paredes was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam for a 14-month tour with a rifle company. He served as intelligence specialist and resumed his higher education when he returned to the United States.

He earned a master's degree in American studies from the University of Southern California in 1969 and a Ph.D. in American civilization from UT-Austin in 1973.

In April, Paredes, 61, of Austin, became Texas' commissioner for higher education. He said he plans to do more to battle the false perceptions among many Hispanics that college is impossibly expensive for them.

"There's so many misconceptions. Poor families tend to overestimate the cost of going to college and underestimate the availability of financial aid," he said.

Paredes said there aren't enough high school counselors to get the word out, so his office is thinking of ways to get Hispanic college students into high schools to be advocates for higher education.

Sara Martinez Tucker Hispanic Scholarship Fund, president and chief executive officer Despite being a Laredo high school's valedictorian, Sara Martinez Tucker's guidance counselor discouraged her from going to college.

"I don't think your family really needs you to leave them right now," she remembers him saying.

But that's not how her family felt.

Her parents thought she did too well academically not to pursue college. They made a long-distance call to UT-Austin and found out the admission officers had brighter predictions for Tucker's college prospects than her guidance counselor.

"When they said that I was first in my class, the admission office was very helpful," Tucker said.

She graduated in two and a half years, earning a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1976.

Tucker worked as a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, but her father advised her she was more suited for business and she returned to UT-Austin to pursue an MBA. She earned the degree in 1979.

Tucker worked for AT&T and climbed the corporate ranks.

She's been president and chief executive officer of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund since 1997. The San Francisco-based organization awards $144 million in scholarships each year.

Tucker, 49, of San Francisco said more programs that expose students and families to college campuses are needed. She said they need to see that they can go to college even though no one in their family or neighborhood has.

"For too many kids across the country, their heritage is their destiny, and I want every Latino kid to have a choice. If they choose their heritage, that's great, but if they choose something else they need an education," she said. "We've got to get more Latino families to understand the importance of college and to put that college mind-set in their kids."

Marta Tienda Princeton University sociologist One of Marta Tienda's seventh-grade teachers once asked her why she hadn't thought about college.

"I looked at her, and I said, 'College is for rich people,' " Tienda said. "She said, 'You can get a scholarship.' Then it was on my radar screen, and I never let go.' " Tienda was born in Donna to parents who met as teen-agers when they were migrant farm workers.

They moved to Detroit shortly after she was born. Her father worked at a steel mill and took English classes at night with the goal of becoming a U.S. citizen.

Tienda visited Michigan State University as a high school junior and decided she wanted to go there.

She graduated from MSU with a degree in Spanish literature in 1972.

She then earned her master's degree and Ph.D. from UT-Austin in four years of study.

Now Tienda, 54, of Princeton, N.J., is a Princeton University sociologist spending much of her time studying Texas' approaches to expanding access to college, such as the Top 10 Percent Plan, which guarantees admission to any state university to any Texan who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class.

Her work has been published in academic journals and major Texas newspapers, and she has testified before state legislative committees.

Tienda said that statistics clearly show which classes make a student likely to go college, and that more Hispanic students should be put into those classes. Many of them, for example, should be taking algebra by ninth grade.

They need to take these classes and realize early that getting a college degree is something they can achieve.

"If we don't put the idea of college on the table early, the likelihood that kids are going to go to college is very low," she said. "It has to be part of their dream, you have to ingrain it in their plan for the future, you have to excite and motive, and we can do that. We need to do that."