At USF, a new push to help Latino students feel more at home

The University of South Florida has launched a task force that will explore ways to increase enrollment and improve graduation rates for Latino students.

One goal of the 15-member group, made up of leaders from USF and the community, will be to help the university become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a U.S. Department of Education designation for schools with at least 25 percent of students identifying as Latino. The designation comes with additional opportunities for federal funds. Latino students make up 22 percent of the USF student body.

“It’s about access for success,” said Paul Dosal, vice president for Student Success at USF and a co-chairperson of the task force. “We don’t just want to open our doors to students without any concern for the rate at which they graduate. We’re doing both.”

Last fall, USF enrolled the most diverse class in its history. The majority of students now identify as nonwhite.

The task force, like one designed to look at Black student enrollment last summer, will work to reach some of the university’s new strategic goals, which include being more responsive to the surrounding community, said Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, an associate professor of sociology who also serves as USF’s interim vice president of institutional equity. She will co-chair the task force with Dosal.

“It indicates USF is being responsive to the needs of our local community and responsive to demographic changes happening across the country,” she said. “The calls and interest from the community to be more proactive have been happening for the past decade.”

Members of the task force will work to better understand the challenges and needs of incoming Latino students, who are not a homogeneous group, Hordge-Freeman said.

Students in Wimauma may face socioeconomic barriers or immigration issues. Some students’ parents may face language barriers when trying to communicate with the university, or lack familiarity with the university system, she said. A Puerto Rican student may have a different experience at USF than a Mexican student.

Mónica Lee Miranda, director of USF’s Center for Student Involvement and a member of the task force, said the new group will go by an acronym that captures its mission. It’s called the Advancing Latino Access and Success Task Force, or ALAS, a Spanish word for wings.

“It’s really telling to the expectation: the lift off, the launch, the soaring,” Miranda said.

The six-year graduation rate among Latino students at USF is 71 percent — about 20 percent higher than the national average and higher than the six-year rate for white students.

But while USF has long been focused on metrics and eliminating the achievement gap, Miranda said she hopes the task force will help make students “feel like they belong here,” whether they identify as Latino, Latina or the gender-neutral Latinx.

“They can be successful, but are they feeling connected and welcomed and included in the institutional fabric and the day-to-day of the institution?” she said. “There’s just so many layers to how we can support not just the achievement, but the general day-to-day experience.”

She thought of her own experience navigating through higher education. Though she came from a family with the expectation she would study in college, leaving home was a challenge, a cultural obstacle she said many Latino students face.

Some of that belonging, she said, comes from seeing someone like you among faculty and staff. She remembered when a Latina once thanked her for working at USF. It was the first time the student had seen someone who looked like her in a director role.

About 5 percent of USF’s full-time faculty members identify as Latino, Latina or Latinx. The number is about 4 percent among tenured faculty. Among staff, it’s about 13 percent and graduate students, 11 percent.

Last week, Miranda co-founded the Alianza Latina Faculty and Staff Association, another new group, which will focus on creating a sense of belonging.

At the first meeting, a virtual affair, about 60 people called in and some were moved to tears, Miranda said.

Many, she said, are familiar with the feeling of being the only person like them in a room or having to tear down walls or be the first to achieve something.

The hope is to make things better for the next generation, Miranda said, “so that when a Latino, Latina, Latinx student walks on this campus, they feel home and a sense of connection, a sense of familia.”