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Hispanics will account for 60 percent of population growth through 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet they have the lowest education-attainment levels of any group in the United States.
About 20 percent of Latino adults 25 and older had earned an associate degree or higher, compared with 36 percent of all adults, according to Excelencia in Education, a non-profit which tracks data on Latino educational status.
Arizona State University is in the top five of institutions awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics, according to the same source.
It takes a large effort for anyone to earn a degree, but for students coming from a background where a college education is not a tradition, it can take additional determination.
Two of ASU’s almost 14,000 Latino students shared their experiences of working for a college degree. Both are Valley residents, and both have had to push hard.
Jose Pardo Urrea’s family came to the United States from Mexico, found jobs and supported themselves. By that benchmark, Urrea said they feel they are “already winning,” he said.
“Their perspective of success is to take care of themselves and their family,” he said. “... A lot of my family doesn’t understand — they don’t really understand the value of education. They don’t understand what the purpose of it is. … They graduated high school, if that.”
As Urrea grew up in Phoenix and went to Camelback High School, his life’s goal was to play professional basketball overseas.
But in his junior year he began a period of self-reflection. “I don’t know why,” he said.
As he thought about what he wanted to do with his life and who he wanted to be, two themes kept arising: He wanted to travel and he wanted to help people. He joined a non-profit program called Be A Leader, which helps high school students to propel themselves into college. Be A Leader paired him with mentors who helped him refine his thoughts.
They also got him into a college prep program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which helps kids who wouldn’t normally go to college get into universities.
“That’s what made me come to a university,” Urrea said. “They made me realize I was capable.”
He started getting serious. He gave up basketball. He competed in class. He joined clubs and student leadership organizations. He volunteered for anything available. He applied for 35 scholarships.
Now Urrea is a junior majoring in urban planning as well as business Spanish language and culture. After graduation he wants to go to Latin America and develop infrastructure for educational facilities like schools and libraries.
“As a Latin American getting a higher education, I feel I have a responsibility,” he said.
He also feels a responsibility to leave a legacy at ASU. He is the campus outreach director for El Concilio, an umbrella group uniting all Hispanic groups at ASU, and a coach with the First Year Success Center, an organization providing support to freshman and sophomores.
“It’s not about getting that degree and getting that job,” Urrea said. “I want to leave a lasting infrastructure here for individuals who have had my experience and a platform for people to learn about my experience who are not from my experience. … Education should be more than passing your classes and getting through.”
Initially, Marissa Jimenez wanted to go into mechanical engineering. She felt that as a Latina, job prospects would be great in a field with few women or Hispanics. However, one calculus class later, she decided engineering was not for her.
Jimenez had worked behind the scenes at two events in her hometown of Glendale: Glendale Glitters, a holiday-lights extravaganza, and Glendale Chocolate Affaire, a candy festival. When she took a university exploration class, she realized what both events had in common.
“I started going back to the idea I was always involved in the community and I was always involved with events,” Jimenez said.
Now the junior is majoring in tourism development and management. Her goal is to get a PhD and lead the university’s special-events minor program in the School of Community Solutions and Public Service.
Her older sister attends Grand Canyon University in the West Valley. Her parents drilled the idea of going to college into them.
“It wasn’t a question of ‘if,’ ” Jimenez said. “It was, ‘You’re going to figure it out.’ ”
She smiled. “They’re really proud of me.”
Through scholarships and working jobs, Jimenez has paid for her education herself.
Her first job was as a math and science tutor. She also worked for the Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute, an ASU leadership program for Arizona high school sophomores and juniors. Now she works for the ASU Office of Special Events.
Comparing her college experience with the average student, she said she’s more self-driven than many students.
“It wasn’t my parents,” she said. “If I didn’t get an ‘A’ in class I was mad at myself. It was me saying in high school I have to work hard for four years to do this and then work hard for another four years.”