By Amanda Miller
The Auraria Campus lies within the boundaries of Denver Public Schools, where more than half of schoolchildren are Latino.
A third of Colorado’s public school students identify as Hispanic or Latino, a figure that goes up every year.
So MSU Denver made a pledge.
The University set out to raise its rate of Latino enrollment from 1 in 8 to 1 in 4 – and in doing so, to achieve the status of Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, by fall 2018.
The federal designation lets colleges compete for grants worth millions of dollars that pay for the resources believed to be most needed among the nation’s growing population of Latino students in higher ed – things that improve access, recruitment, transfer, retention and completion. Those resources can be used for the benefit of all the University’s students.
MSU Denver’s HSI Task Force recently learned that this fall’s enrollment percentage was 26.4, exceeding the federal requirement of 25 percent for a Hispanic-Serving Institution for the first time.
But HSI is about more than just the designation or the funding, says Angela Marquez, Ph.D., MSU Denver’s new special assistant to the president for HSI, who was recently promoted to lead the initiative.
“Our mission is to educate the students of Colorado,” she says. “It’s a diverse state with a large Hispanic population. This is who we are.”
The effort is already elevating lives.
Angelica Lopez-Rodriguez was a senior in high school before anyone ever talked to her about college. Born and raised in Denver, she spent her freshman year of high school in Mexico.
“My mom was going through the immigration process, and there was this wait where we had to leave the country,” she says.
The oldest of three girls, Lopez-Rodriguez entered Westminster High School in Adams County her sophomore year. She and her friends never even brought up the idea of going to college – ever.
“It wasn’t until my second semester as a senior when I kept getting these passes to go to the library,” she says. “It happened to be the Excel Program. They were the first ones to talk to me about college.”
MSU Denver’s Excel Pre-Collegiate Program sends professional guidance counselors and student ambassadors to high schools in metro Denver where Latino populations are large and resources are in short supply. The “passes” provide a chance to meet for one-on-one college counseling.
Excel in its current form is a product of the HSI initiative, says Luis Sandoval, the program’s associate director in the Office of Admissions.
The counselors and ambassadors help high school students with their applications to MSU Denver but also advise on college in general. They assist with applications to other institutions as well, along with financial aid forms, scholarship essays and “whatever it takes to educate these students on what it means to go to college,” Sandoval says.
“We do a lot of really intrusive counseling,” he says.
It makes a big difference for families that have never been through the process. Lopez-Rodriguez experienced the Excel method firsthand that day in the library.
Like half of MSU Denver’s Latino students – and nearly a third of students enrolled at the University now, regardless of ethnicity – she’s among the first generation in her family to go to college.
In the beginning, she didn’t want to apply. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure I would get accepted into college or what that process really looked like,” Lopez-Rodriguez says.
She tried stalling. “My response was, ‘I have time after graduation.’ They were like, ‘No, well, you should apply.’”
That first acceptance letter was the only one she was destined to receive – as an undergrad.
“As soon as I had my acceptance letter, I went back to the library,” Lopez- Rodriguez says. “They said, ‘Congratulations. Also, do you have any other schools you would like to apply to?’
“I told them no.”
She was still nervous about being rejected. “I just wanted to start off with this school first,” she says.
Lopez-Rodriguez hesitated to apply for one of Excel’s scholarships, too.
“They said, ‘Well, either way, apply.’ We spent a good hour or so talking about why I wanted to go to college.”
The brainstorming session resulted in her scholarship essay and a subsequent invitation to senior awards night at Westminster High in honor of winning.
Looking back, the Excel Program had a “huge impact,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if I hadn’t taken their little pass.”
MSU Denver’s HSI Task Force dates to 2007, early in the tenure of then-University President Stephen M. Jordan, Ph.D., who set forth the Hispanic-Serving mission.
It was never just about high school students.
Prior to her promotion this past summer, Marquez was already a member of the HSI Task Force’s working group on transfer enrollment.
“We launched an ethnicity-declaration campaign, assessed part-time students to determine their reasons for part-time enrollment and talked about things like: How do we improve the transfer processes and the acceptance of transfer credits?” she says.
Colorado was home to nine institutions that met the federal HSI enrollment threshold in 2015-16, according to the nonprofit Excelencia in Education. Across the U.S., there were 472 colleges.
Jordan relaunched MSU Denver’s HSI initiative in 2015 to take it “over the finish line” and tapped Esther Rodriguez to lead the effort. Rodriguez, who retired in June 2017, spearheaded the HSI implementation team with a goal of reaching the federal requirement of 25 percent undergraduate, full-time equivalent students identifying as Latino by 2018. FTE is a calculation that factors in part-time students as a fraction.
If this fall’s overall Latino enrollment is an indication of end-of-term FTE, that minimum will be met even sooner. As of the Sept. 6 student census, the student body identified as 26.4 percent Latino overall.
Meanwhile, the HSI Task Force is working on ideas adopted when the plan kicked into high gear in 2015 – ways to be a Hispanic-Serving Institution, not just to become one.
Outcomes include the University’s new Spanish-language website, msudenver.edu/bienvenido, and a new financial aid application specific to the institution that lets undocumented students apply without filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as they had to do in the past using a “proxy” ID number.
MSU Denver’s new Dreamer Network has started conducting UndocuPeers training on documentation and citizenship status for the campus community.
“I feel like we’re making progress,” Marquez says. “I’m looking at it from the perspective of not only how do we improve the student experience to retain and graduate our Hispanic students, but also how do we improve to increase the completion rates for all of our students?”
The next step in establishing eligibility is to show whether MSU Denver meets the federal law’s need-based requirement that at least 50 percent of total students are eligible for federal Title IV financial aid, such as the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Work Study, Federal Perkins Loan or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs.
A Fort Morgan native and graduate of Adams City High School in Commerce City, Magaly Sanchez De La Cruz gave back to, and got support from, the Excel Program when she started at MSU Denver in fall 2015.
Working as an Excel student ambassador helped her meet people on campus and encouraged her to start going to events, such as those offered by the First Year Success Program. If she had a problem with financial aid or a class, she took it to the Excel office.
Now as a junior majoring in social work, she serves as a mentor to new MSU Denver students recruited through Excel. She tries to keep in touch with her charges daily, at least by email.
“I really enjoy having contact with students who are like me, helping them be less stressed, less anxious about school,” Sanchez De La Cruz says.
Among Latino students facing unique anxieties this fall have been MSU Denver’s “Dreamers” who came to the U.S. as minors and applied to have deportation deferred under the Obama administration’s program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
When President Donald Trump in early September announced his intention to end DACA, students wanted to know whether the Auraria Campus Police Department would cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (not without a warrant for a crime, according to the chief); whether student teaching could be done without a work permit; and even whether DACA students should worry about their parents being identified using the federal application.
The news made a palpable impact on campus. Participation in the Dreamer Network had already grown significantly since Trump’s election. With the proposed end of DACA, demonstrators marched in support of those students.
MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., and the MSU Denver Board of Trustees released messages of assurance to the campus community and promised to continue working with state and national leaders to advocate on behalf of DACA students.
A panel of experts from across the campus convened on a Monday to address DACA students’ fears, and by Thursday of the same week, Trump had alluded to a legislative deal that could protect those who benefit from DACA.
Lopez-Rodriguez graduated from MSU Denver with a bachelor’s in human services and a concentration in high-risk youth. She’s just started pursuing her master’s in counseling at the University of Colorado Denver, where she works in Undocumented Student Services.
Her youngest sister says MSU Denver is her dream school.
The Excel Pre-Collegiate Program performed 1,529 unique “student check-ins” during the 2016-17 academic year. MSU Denver received 553 applications directly via the program – more than 700 altogether if you count applications submitted by every student contacted.
With demand on the rise for Excel counselors, organizers recently switched over to a presentation format. Whereas in the past, 40 passes might have brought in eight students, with the new format 24 passes could net 25 students for one-on-one help, says Sandoval.
At the same time, MSU Denver students self-identifying as Latino grew by 8.1 percent overall from last fall to this one, a big boost for the HSI initiative.
Davidson talked about Latino enrollment in her first Town Hall Q&A. She took that opportunity to renew the University’s pledge.
“The Hispanic-Serving Institution as a goal, which was set by my predecessor, Dr. Jordan, was exactly the right goal for a lot of reasons,” Davidson says.
“Educators know, and we all sort of know it in our hearts, that you’re going to be more successful in an educational environment if you feel like you belong here. ... Lifting the population at MSU Denver to get us to HSI status gets us to that critical mass where I think people do feel, then, that they have a sense of belonging.
“That’s why the numbers matter.”
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