Astrid S. Tuminez: Utah’s universities need to better support Latino students

(Franciso Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The 2014 class at Utah Valley University is cheered by faculty and alumni as they make their way to commencement ceremonies at the UCCU Center on Thursday, May 1.

As we mark Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), we celebrate the rich culture of the Latino community and the many significant contributions made to this country by Hispanic Americans, including such luminaries as architect Joseph Phillip Martinez, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Historically, Hispanic Americans have a well-documented track record of contributing to American culture and the economy.

At Utah Valley University, we are dedicated to improving our Latino enrollment and graduation. With Utah’s Latino population at almost 14% and growing, we believe every university in the state should increase its efforts to recruit and retain Latino students.

Since its inception in 2007, UVU’s Latino Initiative has helped to boost UVU’s Latino student enrollment by 361% and Latino graduation head count by 425%. UVU has the largest Latino student enrollment of four-year universities in Utah, and most of those we serve are low income. About 80% are the first in their families to seek a college degree.

Our Latino Initiative — which is the only initiative of its kind in Utah — has worked to increase our Latino population by implementing several strategic measures that engage students, parents, K-12 educators and community leaders in dialogue, programs and services.

One of our most successful efforts is community outreach. We host about 20 open houses a year at community centers, churches or schools — places where Latino families may feel most comfortable. We heavily involve parents, who have a central role in their children’s lives, and facilitate meetings in Spanish to raise awareness of the many pathways UVU offers through its dual mission. We connect the dots for parents, helping them understand our programs, available resources, scholarships and financial aid opportunities.

Our summer bridge program, created through a 10-year partnership with the Latino Initiative and UVU’s College of Science, is a tuition-free, seven-week summer program geared toward increasing the number of Latino and other underrepresented Utah high school students pursuing careers in science. Students can start this program as early as the 10th grade. This science-focused program has been very successful — 80% of the students who complete our summer bridge program end up attending UVU after they graduate from high school.

Additional outreach, such as our annual Latin American celebration dinner, Celebración Latinoamericana, brings together the Latino community to celebrate Latino culture and the academic achievements of successful Latino youths in the area. Conducted entirely in Spanish, last year’s dinner celebrated 123 students from Provo’s Dixon Middle School, which has a 36% Latino population. These students received the Rising Wolverine Award for maintaining a 3.5 minimum GPA for the academic year.

We helped these students enter the university with academic merit scholarships. We also honored 27 Latino graduates from the Utah County Academy of Sciences for graduating with a high school diploma and a UVU two-year degree. In addition, we awarded 124 UVU scholarships to Latino students.

But we don’t stop the conversation once a Latino student enters UVU. We offer tutoring, mentoring and career counseling. We encourage them to connect with other Latino students and staff within their departments. We also support and advise Latino high school students who visit UVU for a half-day Career Day. During this time, we discuss ACT, Advanced Placement (AP), concurrent enrollment and career opportunities, offering guidance on which classes to take in high school that might best prepare them for the particular fields they are interested in studying in college.

We make computers available to students who need them at home and offer online study halls, tutoring and mentoring. Interestingly, there has been an upside to the COVID-19 pandemic: This year, our summer bridge program actually grew as more students were able to participate online. Instead of drawing students from just around Utah Valley, we had students enroll from all around the state, expanding the opportunity to other Latino students in Utah.

We are proud of our progress in supporting Latino students, but we know we have more work to do. Elevating the educational attainment of our Latino population means elevating the future of the entire state.

(Photo Courtesy of Jay Drowns/Utah Valley University) Utah Valley University President Astrid S. Tuminez is photographed with students on the UVU campus in Orem on Wednesday, June 1, 2018.

Astrid S. Tuminez is president of Utah Valley University.