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Latinos see ‘world of difference’ in community
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Pablo Davis, assistant dean of students (top left), meets with Latino student leaders. Davis’s major role is to provide a meeting place for the Latino community, according to Spanish professor Ricardo Padron. “He acts as the middleman providing all groups somewhere to go with their concerns,” Padron said.

By Sarah Marchetti

Spanish professor Ricardo Padron says the Latino community at the University has seen "dramatic and complete change" since he arrived here as an undergraduate student in 1985.

"When I first got to U.Va., Hispanic/Latino students were completely ignored and lumped together with all other minority students under the Office of Minority Affairs," Padron said. "Now there is a world of difference."

When Padron signed up for his first class, there were only four other Hispanic/Latino undergraduate students. Now Hispanic/Latinos account for more than 60 grad students and 416 undergraduates at the University. But they’re still one of the smallest minority groups on Grounds, making up only about 3 percent of the University’s student population.

Hispanic, Latino and Latin-American students, faculty and staff are a diverse group, coming to Charlottesville from countries as disparate as Spain, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, said Pablo Davis, assistant dean of students who works closely with that community. No one Spanish-speaking country has a dominant majority at U.Va., he said.

The great diversity in backgrounds and ethnicity within the community causes a "creative tension" among the different groups, he said. There are several divisions within the community, especially between international students and Americans of Latino descent. Each of these groups has distinct characteristics and tends to keep to itself, which contrasts with the American tendency to lump racial and ethnic groups together.

"What I think we are seeing in the United States, and at U.Va., is a process of 'ethnogenesis,' or birth of an ethnic identity," Davis said. "Many Latino students, especially those who are international or who were born in another country and now live in the U.S., do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino until they get here. Hispanic and Latino are American terms."

Instead, many students likely would categorize themselves as nationals from their countries of origin, he said.

This poses a problem of what to call people from Spanish-speaking countries. Davis uses the terms Latino, Hispanic and Latin American, without favoring any of them, in order to be inclusive.

Fernando Operé, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Latin American/Hispanic Studies Program, believes that Latino is a term coined by political activists to refer to those born in the United States and reared in poverty. He uses the term Hispanic as an expression of Spanish culture to refer to those of Spanish and Latin American origin. Still others use the terms Hispanic and Latino interchangeably.

The biggest challenge facing this ethnically diverse group is communicating with each other and finding common ground, which the Dean of Students’ office and a number of student organizations are working on, Davis said.

"Pablo Davis major function is to provide a meeting place for the Latino community," Padron said. "He acts as the middleman providing all groups somewhere to go with their concerns."

The Dean of Students’ office offers a variety of resources for Latino students, including mentoring, panel discussions and Conexiones, a new program to foster Latino solidarity. Daniela de la Piedra, a fourth-year student whose parents are Chilean and Peruvian, works with Davis to implement this program.

"I was discouraged from participating in Latino events my first year because attendance was so low," de la Piedra said. "I went to one reception but didn’t go in because there were only a few people there, and that’s intimidating to a first-year."
While programs such as Conexiones work to unite the community, issues still divide Latinos at U.Va. Some of these issues are unlike those faced by most Latinos in the U.S.

Nationally, most college-age Latinos lack the resources to complete higher education. While 75 percent of Latinos, 18-24 years old, enroll in college, only half as many Latinos as whites graduate with bachelor’s degrees, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center. And of the Latinos in higher education, 40 percent attend community colleges, the study noted.

Many young adults are the first generation in their families to attend college and unaware of their options. Some who are qualified to attend a four-year institution enroll in community colleges because they didn’t know a four-year program was open to them or they couldn’t afford it.

The Latino population at U.Va. tends to be less marked by poverty than elsewhere. Most come from professional families that immigrated to the United States and are themselves college graduates, according to Davis. Others are international students whose families are financially secure, he said.

Still, some Latino students overcame low expectations of families or educators to matriculate at U.Va.

Soledad Almaraz, a fourth-year College student, attended Northern Virginia Community College for two years before transferring to U.Va. She said her parents are college graduates and always expected her to attend college but felt pressure from NOVA Community College administrators to attend a four-year institution close to home.

"NOVA made you feel that you had to transfer to George Mason and did not offer much information about other colleges," Almaraz said.

Now president of the Latino Student Admission Committee, Almaraz oversees the committee’s two big events, Fall Blast and Spring Blast, designed to attract Latino students to U.Va. During Fall Blast, U.Va. students and admissions officers travel to Northern Virginia and hold a reception and information session for Latino students from 150 area schools. Spring Blast matches prospective students with current Latino students for a weekend visit to Grounds. During the weekend, the admissions committee holds social events and panel discussions to help students decide if U.Va. is right for them.

Still, U.Va. does not offer financial aid targeted specifically to Latino students, which limits the number of underprivileged Latino students who apply, she said.
Even so, Almaraz is optimistic about the growth of the Latino community at U.Va. Last year, only 20 Latino students applied early decision, while this year 69 students applied.

"We are hoping that the number continues to increase along with regular decision applications," she said.

Other University officials share Almaraz’s optimism. Operé said he is encouraged by the growth he has seen over the years.

"The French language was dominant by far when I came here 25 years ago, and this has changed dramatically," he said. "Now Spanish is the biggest language department at the University."


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