'Success for All'
HCC explores its future as a Hispanic Serving Institution.
EDITOR' NOTE: This story appears in the Fall 2018 issue of HCC's Alumni Connection magazine, as part of a package of stories about the college's recent Strategic Planning initiative.
By CHRIS YURKO
In fall 2016, Holyoke Community College marked a major milestone. For the first time, Hispanic student enrollment at the college surpassed 25 percent.
With that, HCC joined a growing national club of colleges and universities recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education as "Hispanic Serving Institutions," or HSI's.
The HSI designation makes HCC eligible to apply for special grants to expand educational opportunities and enhance services and supports for Hispanic students, who have historically trailed their white classmates in the metrics typically used to quantify academic success: persistence (remaining enrolled from one semester to the next), retention (remaining enrolled from one year to the next), course completion, and graduation.
By spring 2018, Hispanic enrollment at HCC had already risen to nearly 28 percent, a trend expected to continue, not just in Massachusetts, but nationwide.
"The LatinX population is growing," said Carlos Santiago, Massachusetts commissioner of Higher Education, during a May 23 forum at HCC focused on strengthening HCC as a Hispanic Serving Institution. "These students are coming to your doors. They're coming in with all different backgrounds. For some of them, English is not their first language. Some of them are coming from school districts that didn't quite give them the skills they need to be successful walking in on day one. They're coming in with gaps."
At a time when total college enrollment is declining, due mostly to an improved economy, low unemployment, and a decrease in the number of high school graduates, the increasing Hispanic student population represents both opportunities and challenges, Santiago said.
"If you can take the student that needs the most help and lift that student's achievement," he said, "everyone will benefit."
Addressing the achievement gap is a priority for the state, Santiago said. It is also a key provision of HCC's new strategic plan.
The HSI forum, held in the Leslie Phillips Theater, followed HCC's Future Walk celebration in the lobby outside, where the college's new mission, vision, values and student experience statements – part of the strategic planning process – were unveiled. In her opening remarks at the HSI forum, President Christina Royal noted that more than 50 percent of Holyoke residents are Hispanic and that Holyoke is home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the continental United States, per capita.
"In Holyoke Ward 2, specifically," she said, "the average income is around $14,000 per year, so we know the impact that education can have on the residents and their families in our local communities."
In fall 2016, she said, 58 percent of HCC's first- time, degree-seeking Hispanic students required developmental education in English (compared to 32 percent for white students); 88 percent required developmental education in math (compared to 76 percent for white students); and 56 percent required both (compared to 30 percent for white students).
"This is why equity is so important to the work that we do and to our strategic plan," she said,"because you can't have success for all without equity."
What being an HSI does not mean is that HCC intends to focus its attention on Hispanic students to the exclusion of others, said Spanish professor Mónica Torregrósa, who introduced the forum's panel of presenters.
"Much like using universal design in our classrooms improves the educational experience, not just for students with disabilities but also for students with diverse learning styles, strengthening the ways in which we serve LatinX students actually enhances HCC's mission to serve all students," she said.
One program model that shows great promise in reducing the achievement gap is Puente. Puente, which means"bridge" in Spanish, builds off the success of HCC's Multicultural Academic Services program, called MAS, which means "more."
MAS was established in 2010 as an intensive advising and academic support program for English as a Second Language students transitioning to regular classes and for international students.
"The MAS program works under the theoretical perspective that all students will benefit from the services we provide, which target those marginalized ones just like universal design," said MAS coordinator Myriam Quiñones. "Retention for MAS program students has always been higher than their HCC student counterparts."
For example, she said, from fall 2016 to fall 2017, the overall retention rate at HCC was 50 percent and 45 percent for Latino students compared to 63 percent for all MAS students and 66 percent for MAS Latino students. Through Puente, created in 2016, MAS now also focuses on a third group – high school students transitioning to HCC.
"Imagine that you are about to choose a retirement plan," Quiñones said. "Your first step is to look at companies. What does your employer support? Which is better, an aggressive or conservative plan? What is a Morning Star profile? Words like vesting, bull market, stocks, bonds, or cash are so foreign and confusing. That is how our first-generation, underserved students feel when applying for college."
Key components of Puente include HCC student mentors, summer programming, campus tours, student panels, bilingual open houses, financial aid workshops, admissions workshops, and high school visits by representatives from the Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services and the Pathways transfer program.
"Community and college collaborations are key to building that strong bridge for new students," she said, "especially first-generation, first-time, underserved and low-income students.
Spanish professor Raúl Gutiérrez talked about the success of HCC's "Bridging Cultures" project," a three-year, grant-funded initiative to integrate Latino Studies material into humanities and social science classes. In 2015, HCC received a $120,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to design new curricula in partnership with the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
One of the grant's main objectives was professional development: each summer, HCC faculty engaged in week-long workshops – called "Latino Studies Boot Camp"– with UMass scholars to develop new course material infused with LatinX content. The result has so far resulted in the creation of new classes, such as "Introduction to Latino Studies,""Latino/a Politics," and"Tainos, Creoles and Boricuas: Caribbean Identities in History and Literature."
Beyond that, though, professors are incorporating LatinX material into existing courses, such as reading LatinX writers in English classes, analyzing the Puerto Rican debt crisis in economics, and examining the work of Mexican photographers in art class.
"By learning about diverse cultures and the contributions of LatinX people, all students widen their knowledge and are better equipped to function in today's multicultural world," Gutiérrez said.
There was also a cultural component. The grant paid to bring in guest speakers, artists and writers for campus events open to the general public, such as author Esmeralda Santiago, whose spring visit filled the Leslie Phillips Theater with a standing-room only crowd.
Gutiérrez shared a comment from one student in Prof. Torregrósa's Caribbean history and literature course: "Having classes examining culture, influence and contributions of the Puerto Rican and Caribbean community is critical in Holyoke. The students at this college should be represented and celebrated. In addition, this class provided the space for myself and other non-LatinX students to learn to participate in a discussion about personal identity and culture. The class was a critical moment in my education as well as my cultural literacy and understanding."
While HCC's HSI designation is based on enrollment, said Michele Snizek, director of Retention and Student Success, the focus is on reducing achievement gaps – increasing those rates of persistence, retention, completion and graduation.
"The goal is to take our successful models, some of which you've seen here this afternoon," she said, "and determine how we can grow those to benefit all students. Success for all is the measure we're using."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Thumbnail) Carlos Santiago, state commissioner of Highe Education, speaks at HCC during a May 23 forum focusing on the college as a Hispanic Serving Institute. (Above) Myriam Quiñones, coordinator of Multicultural Academic Services, also known as MAS, talks about the Puente program.