‘Diversity is a need’: Dalton State an Emerging Hispanic-Serving Institute
September 22, 2014
When Leslie Aguilar Elrod wanted her parents to spend their money on her education instead of a party, they were shocked.
“The expectation was to have a quinceanera (a traditional party for a 15-year-old girl in Hispanic cultures), get married, have children and not go to school,” said Elrod, a 47-year-old biology major at Dalton State.
When she decided to enroll at Dalton State to work on a degree in biology a few years ago, she wasn’t sure if the College would be welcoming – being a nontraditional student of Mexican and American Indian decent.
But it was, especially compared to her first college experience in 1985 while receiving an associate’s degree in restaurant management from another institution where she was looked down on for being Hispanic and pursuing an education.
“Dalton State is good at balancing all the cultures represented here,” Elrod said. “I see a lot more non-traditional Hispanic students. Hispanics are very proud of their culture. And seeing other Hispanics accomplishing and being in leadership positions helps.”
Quincy Jenkins, the College’s director of Hispanic and Latino outreach, works to make sure Hispanic students can succeed at Dalton State as it moves toward becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) – a federal designation given to colleges where at least 25 percent of the student population is Hispanic. Currently Dalton State is at 21 percent and is considered an Emerging HSI.
Becoming an HSI means the College will be able to apply for federal grants that would benefit the entire student body, not just the Latino students.
“When we reach the magic number of 25 percent, we will be declared an HSI, which will make us eligible for generous federal grants that can be used to benefit all students with investment in such things as community development, healthcare, technology, library resources, and academic preparation and performance,” said Dr. John Schwenn, president of Dalton State. “Students will be eligible for additional scholarships, internships and academic advancement programs, and faculty and staff will have access to research grants, teaching and professional development opportunities, and student support programs. This is certainly a case in which a rising tide can raise all boats – or in our case, all Roadrunners.”
The student population at the College is not because of any marketing or recruitment campaign to target a specific audience, Schwenn said. It is a reflection of the community.
Jenkins echoed that sentiment, and added it is best for the entire community if its population is educated, regardless of heritage or ethnicity.
“We want most of our population to be educated to have the best prepared community we can,” he said. “If we have a large population of unskilled workers in the community, it hurts everyone.”
Communities with a large number of people without higher learning tend to have lower wages, higher crime rates, higher unemployment rates, and less health care.
Jenkins works to make sure Dalton State is an open, welcoming place for all students. By increasing Latino organizations and events on campus, he hopes that students are finding people with whom to connect for support, encouragement, and understanding.
“Diversity is a need,” he said. “We want to be more open.”
Hispanic families are close, and often the needs of the family come before the needs of the individual. Jenkins works with families to help them understand why education is important and what going to college is like.
Daniela Molinar is an exception. Though many students at Dalton State, especially among Hispanic students, are first-generation students, she’s not.
“My parents went to college, and they don’t always understand what I’m doing,” said Molinar, who is on track to graduate in December from Dalton State with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for students whose parents only went through the sixth grade for instance,” she said. “The advice I would give them is to find someone to connect to, someone who understands.”
Oftentimes, being a first-generation student means their families don’t understand the struggles and pressures of college life. And sometimes, that means, students aren’t supported.
Molinar, a 2009 graduate of Dalton High School, grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico and became a U.S. citizen a couple of years ago. She had lived in Dalton for 10 years legally prior to that.
“Coming to Dalton State was difficult at first,” she said. “I know it wasn’t as shocking as it would have been to go somewhere else though. Now, it’s good to prove you can get a good degree from here and still be with your family.”
Molinar has seen Dalton State change over the past five years.
“My freshmen year there didn’t seem to be that many Hispanics, but there have been a lot more in the last couple of years,” she said. “It’s something I noticed, but not something that intimidated me. I have made a lot of good friends here. People are open to making new connections.”
Jenkins says the Hispanic students on campus aren’t much different than others from North Georgia. Many of them have been in the area their entire lives and associate more with the Georgian culture than the Hispanic culture.
“The perception that we have a lot of undocumented students is wrong,” he said. “Our students are North Georgians. Not all speak Spanish. They much more identify themselves with North Georgia than other areas. Many listen to country music. It’s not another population. They are in Dalton. English is their dominant language.”