(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Focus magazine.)
In middle and high school, Homero Gonzalez, now 21 and a senior at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), spent long hours in English as Second Language (ESL) classes trying to gain command of English. Though an A/B student, he says his teachers never mentioned college as a possibility for him.
“It seemed that the counselors didn’t see ESL students as able to handle college, so they didn’t push it as an opportunity,” Gonzalez says. “The focus was on developing our English skills.”
Gonzalez did go to college, however, on a state-funded HOPE scholarship. He now returns to his former high school—and others—to mentor Spanish-speaking students and show them, by his example, that college is possible.
The outreach stems from the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), a student-run group at GGC. OLAS’ service learning component is one of several strategies and co-curricular opportunities GGC has created to encourage Latino students to enroll in and graduate from college.
Gonzalez, a former president of OLAS, says the group works to demystify the college process for Latinos. It provides campus tours to Latino parents and prospective students, and its members also involve other Georgia colleges and universities in leadership training and networking activities.
“A lot of us who exited ESL classes knew nothing about college,” Gonzalez says. OLAS gives us the opportunity to teach younger kids about higher education and what they need to do to get here.”
Georgia Gwinnett College—which opened in 2006 at Lawrenceville, northeast of Atlanta—is the state’s first new four-year public college in more than 100 years. According to latest Census figures, the Hispanic population in Gwinnett County nearly tripled in the past decade, from 64,000 in 2000 to 162,035 in 2010. About 20 percent of Gwinnett County residents are Hispanic.
Latino enrollment at GGC reflects those demographics and has increased every year. Of the 5,700 students currently enrolled, Latinos constitute 6 percent. The college’s effort to recruit Latino students is aided considerably by its formal partnerships with community centers, churches and other organizations. Instead of making the Latino community come to the school, recruiters go to them, says Louis Negron, director of Minority Outreach Programs.
“Many Latino families work two or three jobs, so Sunday is the day when the entire family is together,” Negron says. “Our presence in their churches shows we care about their kids’ future education.”
When new students arrive at GGC, each one is assigned a faculty mentor—someone to advise and engage them throughout their undergraduate careers and into jobs or more education. Before students can register for classes, they must first meet with their assigned mentors. If a student misses a class, the mentor is notified.
GGC boasts unusually high retention rates—about 78 percent. The success is partly driven by its strategies to ensure that freshmen return as sophomores. GGC gives full and part-time faculty members cell phones and pays for the service plans to encourage constant contact between students and instructors.
Faculty members are expected to respond to students’ calls within 24 hours.
“It makes your instructor very accessible to the students,” says Gonzalez, who once called his professor at midnight about an assignment.
Small classes, the presence of bilingual staff members in the admissions office, and a Spanish-language website also keep students engaged and focused on earning their degrees.
This May, Gonzalez will do just that. Through OLAS, he began networking with Telemundo Atlanta, a U.S. Spanish-language television network. Impressed by his leadership skills, the company offered Gonzalez a marketing position.
Those types of success stories are the best part of Negron’s job as a college recruiter. He says “nothing is more satisfying” than seeing a student reach what, in most cases, is an important family goal.
“These families have struggled to get their kid to college, and now that student is chang- ing his life and that of his family because of their sacrifice,” Negron says.