Victor Rodriguez Valdovinos scored straight As in his first semester at the University of Portland. In some families, that might elicit a thumbs up. For Victor’s family, it’s akin to reaching a mountaintop.
Victor, a nursing major at the North Portland university, is the son of hardworking Mexican immigrants, neither of whom attended high school.
“For a first generation college student, it was super tough to find what’s good and what’s not good in a college,” says Victor, a graduate of Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton. “Just getting there was the main goal.”
But after his first semester, he realizes that a Catholic college was the right choice.
Many of Victor’s high school teachers attended U.P. or Gonzaga University. He admired their knowledge and values. On top of that, the Rodriguez Valdovinos family are devout members of St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland. The father is a custodian at Valley Catholic and the mother a housekeeper at Maryville, a Catholic residence for elders. The faith character of U.P. was a strong draw.
Victor, the second of four children, made his college decision along with the whole family, one of the hallmarks of Latino discernment.
U.P.’s annual tuition of about $42,000 per year shocked the household. But they soon found that few people pay the full price and that Victor would receive scholarships.
He worked in landscaping on weekends and often made moves to get other jobs so he could help pay family bills. But his parents refused permission, telling him to focus on his studies.
The family considered college culture shock, but knew it would be minimal. Victor, who is fully bilingual, had already excelled at Valley Catholic and was comfortable on a majority-white campus. He’d continually received encouragement and was told that, as a first generation college-prep student, he was something special. That helped calm fears he had about academic performance.
Victor has joined U.P.’s Latino student organization and leadership group, Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos de Aztlan. “That is really cool,” he says. “I came to meet a lot of new people.” Members tutor students at nearby Roosevelt High School. Victor goes back on his own to give extra help and to be a mentor. He hopes young Latinos look at him and see their future.
“I want to do my best for them so they can keep succeeding in life,” he says. One of his main messages to Latino youths: No matter what happens with civic policy, no one can take away your education.
Admissions, financial aid and the whole collegiate undertaking can seem daunting to a family in which no one has attended before.
“I have observed a concern about understanding the process,” says
Joe Bernard, longtime college counselor at Valley Catholic. “That is a huge barrier for some students.” That’s why Bernard and his peers make special efforts to decode the college process.
Also, first-in-the-family collegians often come from homes without a lot of income.
“They look at the bill and say, ‘You want me to cough up $50,000 a year?’” says Bernard, who explains that good students can get substantial scholarship money and non-white students are eligible for targeted aid.
Victor is a dream recruit for colleges, which are working hard to attract Latinos and males.
Schools like the University of Portland and Gonzaga University have added Spanish to their admissions and financial aid web pages. One of the weekly campus tours is in Spanish.
Cassy Esparza, a U.P. admissions counselor who focuses on diversity and inclusion, attends an annual Latino leadership conference in Oregon. She tells prospective students to pick a school that suits them — academically, culturally and spiritually.
“If you are somewhere where there is a real big college-going culture, you feel left behind. You may not know where to start,” says Esparza, a Utah native who was the first in her family to attend college. “Students may feel shy.”
‘We are Catholic like they are’
That said, Catholic identity does attract Hispanics, says Esparza. That’s increasingly true at U.P., a school of 3,700 where 13 percent of the student body is Hispanic.
“Because of the Catholic identity, they see the school as an extension of home,” Esparza explains.
Latino families like to accompany their collegians. During the weekly student Mass at U.P., for example, several local Latino students sit with their parents and siblings.
Colleges send representatives to high schools with large numbers of Latinos, including small towns like Yakima and the Tri-Cities. Gonzaga University hires bilingual admissions counselors and has bilingual students lead tours. All are trained to offer families words of reassurance about cost, says Erin Hays, Gonzaga’s admission director and current chair of the Catholic College Admission Association.
Most of all, Gonzaga emphasizes its faith-based identity for Latinos.
“I feel that is where we really should be standing out for families,” says Hays. “The parents want students to go to a school where they really will be good people.” Hays says families concerned about the safety of students find comfort in a smaller Catholic school.
Gonzaga’s most recent class is 11.5 percent Hispanic. That is the school’s fastest-growing demographic.
Ten years ago, Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, began an effort to recruit more Latino students. In that period, the population went from 4 percent to 10 percent. The change has enriched the campus and made it more like the nation, says Joel Recznik, the school’s vice president in charge of enrollment.
The staunch Catholic culture in Steubenville is a major attraction.
“A majority of Hispanics feel very comfortable here and feel it’s a second home,” says Recznik. “We are Catholic like many Latinos are Catholic.”
Reasons to stay
Once Latino students are on campus, colleges want to make them feel like staying.
Franciscan University, for example, has a regular Spanish Mass and a group called Latinos for Christ.
“My friend group consists of me, a Filipino, an Irishman, a couple Latinos, and someone who was born in Israel and is Jewish by heritage, and I’ve found that this type of diversity is supported at Franciscan from administration and faculty to the entire student body,” says Elisha Valladares-Cormier, a Mount Angel resident now attending the Ohio school.
Valladares-Cormier has quickly become active on campus, writing for the student paper and running its social media efforts.
The University of Portland, in addition to the Latino leadership group, has a center for students who are having trouble with academics or cultural transition.
At Gonzaga, the La Raza Latina organization celebrates heritage while organizing service work and advocacy. Hays befriended a Latino student from California who was not sure at first about Spokane, which is less diverse than his hometown. She told him that maybe his Gonzaga experience would help him know what a large part of the United States is like.