“Your community needs you,” said the stranger I’d just met at a party my freshman year. As a kid that had come to college from a part of the country where almost everyone was Latino, I was initially apprehensive about joining a culturally based organization.
A part of me knew she was right, but another part of me wanted to branch out and experience different cultures. I decided to give a couple organizations a chance, and it didn’t take long to realize exactly what she was talking about.
Latino Student Organizations provide a place for college students to build social networks, develop leadership skills, promote the Latino culture, and a family away from the familia that Latinos so greatly cherish.
Organizations range from political, professional, social, and Greek. There are many organizations that only exist at their respective campuses, but there are also national organizations like Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting that have chapters across the country.
In addition, Latino student organizations host regional/national student conferences that bring students from different campuses together to, as Joaquin Valdez, Co-Chair of the Latino Leadership Summit at the University of Texas, said “motivate, educate, and empower students on various issues affecting the community.”
Stephanie Landaverde, President of the Hispanic Student Organization at the University of Georgia, sees her organization as a liaison between the university and the Latino community on campus. “The university wants to know if [Latino] students’ needs are being met and how they can get the most out of their experience.”
Although Latino enrollment in two- and four-year colleges has spiked in the last few years, Latinos still lag far behind the national average of adults with college degrees. Additionally, less than half of Latino students that enter college leave with a degree. The problem isn’t always getting into school, it’s leaving it with a degree.
This is where the most important, and often overlooked, role of Latino student organizations comes into play: their role in student recruitment and retention. Research shows that Latino students involved in student organizations are more likely to stay in school.
Given the role of Latino students in maintaining and fostering diversity, it is important that university administration help support the growth and development of these student organizations through funding, recruitment and retention of Latino faculty, and academic programs, something that may not always the case. There isn’t a university in this country that does not desire to attract and retain a racially diverse student population. But, for all their efforts (or, maybe, lack thereof), it is the students involved in culturally based organizations that do much of the “grunt work” that makes (and keeps) their respective universities diverse.
As I look back, I wonder if I would have graduated without that support system from the Latino student organizations. While these student organizations may have needed me, I think I was the one that really needed them.