Less than a year after Portland State President Wim Wiewel launched his Éxito program in October 2011 to promote the success of Latino students on campus, five students staged a sit-in at Wiewel’s office on May 4, claiming that the university doesn’t do enough to support them.
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Less than a year after Portland State President Wim Wiewel launched his Éxito program in October 2010 to promote the success of Latino students on campus, five students staged a sit-in at Wiewel’s office on May 4, claiming that the university doesn’t do enough to support them.
The students listed key issues that they said the president hasn’t addressed: the completion of a campus support center called La Casa Latina, staffing of the Chicano Latino studies program and the process faced by undocumented Hispanics who apply to PSU. A Latin-themed immersion floor in the dormitories was also proposed.
“My experience here has been really good, but there are still a lot of things that could be improved within the university to accommodate for Latinos,” said Melissa Sarabia, a PSU senior majoring in business and one of the organizers of the sit-in.
Sarabia and the other students behind the event were a group of friends.
“I think it’s difficult when you’re a student group…A lot of organizations really over-think things, over-analyze things to the point that things don’t get done,” Sarabia said.
Local news channel KOIN 6 filmed the gathering at Wiewel’s office and his meeting with the students.
“He said, ‘See? It wasn’t so bad. I met with you guys.’ Well, it’s bad PR if you don’t,” Sarabia said.
Wiewel emphasized that he’s always open to talking with students.
“Did they try to set up a meeting? I meet with students regularly. Can I meet with every single request? No, of course not. I couldn’t,” Wiewel said. “Often we refer people to the most appropriate place. But for people to say, ‘Oh, we only met with them because of whatever,’ when they’ve never even asked for a meeting, seems a little unfair.”
Chief Diversity Officer Jilma Meneses, whose role was created by Wiewel last summer, feels that the Éxito program is succeeding. La Casa Latina, a center for Latinos that the program promised, will be opening in June.
“The new space, although temporary, has been remodeled and is very warm and inviting,” she said.
Carmen Block, a Chicana student who worked on art for La Casa Latina, said her mural expresses her culture.
“It’s a way to claim physical, psychological and emotional space,” she said.
Other accomplishments of the Éxito program include the availability of Equal Access scholarships to Latinos—Meneses’ office sent more than 3,000 e-mails to current and prospective Latino students inviting them to apply—and recruitment visits to high schools.
The students who visited Wiewel’s office felt that La Casa Latina should have been opened by now, and that it shouldn’t be temporary.
“We want something set in stone,” Sarabia said.
Another complaint made by the students was that the Chicano Latino studies program is inadequately staffed.
The program currently employs one tenure-track professor, one visiting professor and three adjunct professors, to be joined by another adjunct professor this summer, according to Monica Bautista, a Chicano Latino studies adviser. Between three and five classes are offered each term, and during the summer, one or two.
“We would love to be a department and do all the things that other departments do,” Bautista said, emphasizing the importance of teaching Latino culture to students. “The Latino population is growing. Whatever field you go into, chances are you’re going to be working with Latinas or for Latinos, or your patients will be Latinos.”
Wiewel explained that funds are allocated to programs based on enrollment data.
“Every department in the university is understaffed,” he said. “We don’t have enough accountants, we don’t have enough plumbers, we don’t have enough professors of English, we don’t have enough—you name it. We try to use rational models to figure out where is the need greatest.”
The Latino students also told Wiewel that the university should make more efforts to present a clear application process to undocumented students. PSU junior Juliana Minn, one of the students who planned the sit-in, said many illegal immigrants are confused.
“They don’t know that PSU lets students without papers in,” she said.
Agnes Hoffman, associate vice provost for enrollment management, said that if students have graduated from a high school in Oregon and are residents of Oregon, the university will overlook blanks on the application related to citizen status and birthplace.
“We don’t tell students how to fill out applications,” she said.
Wiewel feels that the issue of undocumented students’ eligibility for federal aid is a bigger issue.
“If they can prove Oregon residency, we don’t check citizenship,” he said. “It really comes down to money. They need financial aid, but if they want to apply for scholarships, they have to prove citizenship, and that’s federal law.”
Certain state funds like the Oregon Opportunity Grant can help students regardless of citizenship, according to Meneses. In addition, private gifts like PSU’s Equal Access scholarship are also an option.
Guatemalan native Kedin Zapeta didn’t realize he could leave parts of his application blank when he applied to PSU last spring. An illegal immigrant who graduated from Franklin High School in Portland he indicated that he wasn’t a permanent United States resident on his application, prompting the university to classify him as an international student. The enrollment process of international students involves showing records of at least $30,000 in savings, which Zapeta doesn’t have.
“They should have something that says ‘leave it blank,'” he said. “I still want to go [to PSU]. I still want to have a career.”
Minn and the other students at the sit-in also proposed an immersion floor in the dormitories that would bring Latinos and those interested in Latino culture together.
“My goal is to increase Latino presence on campus,” she said. “Right now we’re mainly commuter students.”
After the sit-in, Minn met with Vice Provost of Student Affairs Jackie Balzer and Director of Housing and Residence Life Corey Ray to discuss plans for the floor. She hopes to submit a formal request to Ray by December and have the floor established by fall 2012.
The students at the sit-in cited other Oregon universities as modeling supportiveness of Latinos. Oregon State University employs Gustavo Martinez-Padilla as director of its La Casa Latina.
“Successful programs really reach out,” he said. His job description consists entirely of the retention and recruitment of Latino students.
Hugo Nicholas, a Latino senior at Salem’s McNary High School, visited PSU in February.
“I felt left out,” he said. “It seemed like a white population.”
The programs at OSU and Western Oregon University were more appealing to him.
The Hispanic Outlook, a magazine that markets itself as the only Hispanic higher-education news source, published its “Top 100 Institutions for Hispanics” list on May 2. Florida International University in Miami was in the top spot.
Janiel Vargas, an FIU senior majoring in Spanish and political science and a member of the university’s top two Latino clubs—The Cuban Panthers and Latinos United of South Florida—said, “My university…is the absolute epicenter of our nation’s melting pot. I love it at this place. As a Cuban American, I am right at home.”
The students who organized the sit-in hope to make PSU more like FIU.
“We have a lot to contribute to PSU. We are PSU,” Sarabias said. “We’re trying to have more Latinos living on campus and saying, ‘you know what? We’re not going to be pushed out. We are going to live in the city, so that we look more like the rest of America, which is people of color in the cities.'” ?