“We feel that Dr. Gates has created an opportunity for us to address
these issues,” We have a voice and there’s somebody who listens.”
- Victor Arizpe, Ph.D., Director of the Hispanic Studies Department, Founder of MALFA
The Hispanic Presence at Texas A&M
by Kara Bounds Socol
Reprinted with permission from Texas Aggie magazine
Hispanic Aggies talk about their campus experiences and Texas A&M’s role in both educating the state’s fastest-growing population and preparing its traditional students for a changing world.
From the first years of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas to their record-breaking freshmen enrollment in 2005, Hispanics have always played a vital part in shaping Texas A&M. Though always small in number, Hispanic students have stood out as campus leaders, athletes and scholars.
This sense of inclusion has never changed, but state demographics have. Even
as Texas A&M aspires to become recognized as one of the nation’s top
research universities, then, its original land-grant mission—which made
a college education available to all classes of students—is every bit
as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.
The Hispanic Presence
At Texas A&M, there is no arguing the point that football is king. Names like
Jack Pardee ’57, Edd Hargett ’69, Bubba Bean ’76 and Ray Childress ’85 play a central part in Aggie lore.
But if you ask an Aggie who scored the team’s first-ever touchdown, only the most die-hard fan will know. The answer is N. Valdez, Class of 1896, and he was a civil engineering major from Hidalgo, México. The game was against Galveston on Thanksgiving Day, 1894.
Whether on the gridiron or in the chemistry lab, Hispanic Aggies have a long history of making the university proud. Names like Abelardo Valdez ’64, former American ambassador to the Organization of American States; Jorge Quiroga ’81, former president of Bolivia; Martin Torrijos ’87, president of Panama; Tomás Hernández Alberto ’72, secretary of state of the Dominican Republic; Eduardo Castro-Wright ’75, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, USA; and Rolando Santos ’78, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Headline News, are recognized internationally.
Then there are the not-so-familiar names, like Irma G. Alvarado ’70, Texas A&M’s earliest known Hispanic female graduate. And war heroes like Albert Tijerina ’65, a Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band head drum major, who, as an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal before being killed in action.
Texas A&M’s “Hispanic experience” can ’t be simply defined because it scans the entire history of the university. It starts with the archived name of José Angel Ortíz, Class of 1889; extends through the affluent Latin Americans who, for decades, represented the highest proportion of the campus’ Hispanic students; includes Hispanic veterans who came to campus along with their fellow soldiers following World War II; is represented by the restless students who, during the Chicano movement of the ’70s, organized Texas A&M’s first Hispanic campus group; and continues through the hundreds of Hispanics now coming to Texas A&M as the first in their families to receive college educations.
And the Hispanic experience is shaped by the small, but growing group of Hispanic faculty members who have united with their fellow staff members to collectively support each other and offer their perspectives on various matters to Texas A&M President Robert Gates. Like other university groups — Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike — these faculty members are intent on attracting and retaining more Hispanic professors and students at Texas A&M and of seeing more Hispanics reach the university’s highest ranks.
Texas A&M’s “Hispanic experience,” then, is an umbrella term encompassing all socio-economic groups, all backgrounds, all aspirations. It tells the story of the university’s proud history, and it determines how this same university chooses to influence the future of Texas.
“It’s almost like the world around us has changed, but A&M hasn’t. And I think that’s where A&M has a challenge.”
Those words, spoken by Miguel Juárez, curator for Hispanic Studies Collections at Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, succinctly describes the place Texas A&M finds itself as it faces the demographic changes of the 21st century.
Hispanics comprise roughly 35 percent of the Texas population and are expected to be the state’s majority ethnic group within the next 25 years. At Texas A&M, however, they make up a mere 5 percent of the student body.
Texas A&M is far from alone in this predicament. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics disseminated by the Texas State Data Center, adult high school graduates comprised only 49.3 percent of the state’s Hispanic population in 2000, compared to 79.5 percent of their white counterparts. And while 25.8 percent of white adults in Texas held college degrees in 2000, the census reported a dismal 8.9 percent for Hispanic adults.
This disparity — and the responsibility of Texas A&M to do everything in its power to change it — is not lost on Gates. In December 2003, he released a statement concerning Texas A&M’s efforts to increase student diversity. A portion of that statement said:
“The reality we all must accept is that Texas — and the nation — are part of a far more diverse, more competitive and more complex world than ever before. The reality we all must accept is that the alternative to change is stagnation and decline. The reality we all must accept is that we must do a better job of meeting our obligations and responsibilities to all of the citizens of the state of Texas in preparing its students for a changed world. This is not political correctness. It is political realism.”
Dr. Edward Murguia, founding director of Texas A&M’s Mexican American and U.S. Latino Research Center (MALRC), agreed.
“The quality of life in Texas in general is going to be dependent on the quality of life of the Latino population,” he said. “America has always been a place where immigrants start at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, but work hard and move up. America should always keep those lines of opportunity open.”
Dr. Victor Arizpe, Texas A&M professor of Spanish and head of the Hispanic studies department, said that education is vital if Hispanics are going to improve their economic and intellectual standing. But bringing more Hispanics to Texas A&M, he said, is also important to the future of the university’s conservative, white student majority.
“There is an argument being made by many universities across the country that today’s workforce is diverse and we need to prepare students for that,” he said. “For us in higher education, it becomes important to create an environment that reflects the real world.”
Companies are looking for employees who know how to work with diverse groups, said Arizpe. When university students are exposed to classmates and professors from different backgrounds, barriers are broken and trust and understanding are created.
“The classroom is a microcosm of the broader outside world,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for students to build relationships. The more they know each other, the better citizens they become.”
This is particularly important at Texas A&M, where a 1999 report focusing on the kinds of graduates attractive to employers found that those from Texas A&M University System institutions were lacking in multicultural knowledge and skills. The report, commissioned by the A&M System chancellor and prepared by the system’s Strategic Policies Research Group, indicated that A&M System graduates were “insufficiently oriented to the need for international education” and “insufficiently diverse and lacking educational experiences related to multilingual and multi-cultural job requirements.”
Every industry, agency and school district representative involved in the study said all potential employees should speak at least one language in addition to English. And an aerospace defense sector manufacturer went as far as to say that within five years, his company would not be hiring anyone who was not at least bilingual.
Seven years after this study, Arizpe said he’s seeing the results of these employer demands through increased enrollment in Spanish and other language courses. And sweeping changes made by Gates in terms of admission requirements, recruitment of Hispanic students and efforts to see them through until graduation are beginning to pay off.
“My sense is that the president has created the right climate for things
to happen, ”
Life as a Hispanic Aggie
One of the chief supporters of Gates’ recruitment efforts is Robert Gonzáles ’68, an attorney for the Department of the Army in San Antonio. Along with other Hispanic former students, Gonzáles is an evangelist of sorts to the Hispanic community on behalf of Texas A&M. He has a deep love for his alma mater, and he is passionate about spreading that love to Hispanic high school students.
Gonzáles’ Aggie roots run deep. His father, Ralph Gonzáles ’53,
enrolled in college after World War II and brought his family to live on the
Texas A&M campus.
Robert Gonzáles also followed seven uncles on the maternal side of his family to Texas A&M. His grandmother, Maria Reyes, was the first Hispanic named Aggie Mother of the Year in 1956. And in 1983, his mother, Rachel Gonzáles, was the first Hispanic president of the Federation of Texas A&M Mothers’ Clubs.
While few Hispanics were on campus during Gonzáles’ time as a student, he said he never once was made to feel any different from his Classmates. His senior year, in fact, Gonzáles was one of three Hispanics on the 15-member Corps of Cadets staff. Henry Cisneros ’68 — who later served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — was head drum major of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. And Héctor Gutierrez Jr. ’ 69 — who would later become senior adviser for legislative affairs for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry ’72 — was soon to be the first Hispanic Corps commander.
“We all had a fair chance,” Gonzáles said.
But Gonzáles readily admits that his background was drastically different than that of many of today’s Hispanic students — particularly first-generation college students.
“I was not a trailblazer for my family,” he said. “But there are a lot of Hispanic kids today who are trailblazers — the first in their families to graduate from high school, the first in their fami lies to go to college.”
Daniel R. Hernández ’73 wasn’t the first in his family to go to college, but the odds were certainly stacked against him. The youngest of his parents’ nine surviving children, he spent his childhood as a migrant farmer, attending school wherever he happened to be picking.
Hernández’ father was determined that his children receive an education. So after graduating from high school in Bryan in 1969, Hernández followed five of his brothers to Texas A&M.
In September, Juárez interviewed Hernández as part of Cushing’s upcoming exhibit, “Hispanics at Texas A&M: Celebrating 130 Years.” During that interview, Hernández explained that attending Texas A&M had been a lifelong dream. But once he got there, he said, he began to feel not outright discrimination, but a “coolness” toward him and other Hispanic students.
“Understand it was during the late sixties when the ‘Chicano’ movement was going on all throughout the state of Texas,” Hernández told Juárez. “Even though here you didn’t have real radicals or extremists marching or whatever, you had the mindset that things needed to change. We were beginning to feel a sense of identity about being Hispanics.”
The result was a campus organization called the Committee for the Awareness of the Mexican American Culture (CAMAC) — the first Mexican-American group on campus.
Shortly after graduating, Hernández was hired as Texas A&M’s assistant director of admissions, where he focused on recruiting Hispanic and African-American students. By the time he left the A&M System, he had worked his way up to associate vice chancellor for community development. He is now in private law practice and is an adjunct professor at Mays Business School.
Monica Díaz, ’06, is a Texas A&M senior from Midland. During her senior year in high school, she toured three Texas campuses with reputable civil engineering programs. While at Texas A&M, she was introduced to the president of the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers (SPHE).
“He was the friendliest guy I’d ever met,” she said. “He took the time to talk to me about who I am, where I come from. He really cared. I knew then that I could come to A&M and find my place here within the huge engineering college. That’s ultimately what got me here.”
Other significant factors in her decision were two scholarship offers: an Academic Achievement Award from Texas A&M’s Honors Program and a Foundation Excellence Award from the Texas A&M Foundation.
Díaz said her Texas A&M experience has been nothing but positive. She is now president of the Aggies in Motion dance team and director of programs for the Hispanic Presidents’ Council. After she graduates in May, Díaz — now a sociology major — will be teaching elementary school in inner-city Houston through “Teach for America.”
“I think it’s important for Hispanic students on campus to find
their niche within an organization,” Díaz said. “That’s
where you find your friends. That’s where you find your home.”
The Faculty Viewpoint
Dr. Nadia Florés is new to Texas A&M, recently assuming an assistant professor position in sociology concentrating on Latin American demographics. She said Texas A&M is an attractive place for potential Hispanic faculty members, citing the many efforts to bring them there and the growing support among colleagues. It is also close to research opportunities in Houston, to the Texas A&M University Center in México and, for many, to relatives in Texas and Latin America.
Like other universities, though, Texas A&M has to deal with factors beyond its control.
“There are a lot of challenges out there for Hispanics to get to graduate
school,” Florés explained. “So I think one of the reasons
Texas A&M is having a difficult time recruiting Hispanic faculty is because
there are not that many Hispanics out there for them to hire. It seems that
it is still very difficult to find talented Hispanic faculty to be candidates.”
But difficult or not, Florés said that a strong Hispanic presence among the Texas A&M faculty is a vital element in the overall educational experience of Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike.
“I can see how my students really lack the experience of learning from a faculty member like me,” she said. “I bring a different experience and a different mindset. My perception is that most of the students who come to Texas A&M haven’t really been in a setting where they can learn about minority groups and their struggles.”
As of fall 2005, Texas A&M had only 80 tenured or tenure-track Hispanic faculty members on campus, compared to 1,260 white faculty members. MALRC director Murguia said that recruiting more Hispanic faculty members and placing more Hispanics in administrative roles would help Texas A&M achieve its enrollment goals. Hispanic students, he said, need professors who understand their background and the unique needs of first-generation college students. They need Hispanic mentors, role models and sponsors for their organizations.
Like its Hispanic students, Texas A&M Hispanic faculty and staff members also have realized the importance of finding a niche across academic disciplines. Over the last few years, they have formed advocacy, outreach and research support groups concerned with bettering the lives of Hispanics both on and off campus. That movement began with the formation of the Professional Hispanic Network, open to Hispanic faculty and staff members.
The Mexican American Latino Faculty Association (MALFA) was later founded by Arizpe and Hernández as an effort to bring specific issues to the attention of Gates. MALFA members were later successful at establishing MALRC, which provides seed grants for policy studies focused on the Hispanic population. This puts professors in prime position to receive larger outside grants for cutting-edge research while also aiding the Hispanic community through policy study findings, said Murguia.
From their success in establishing MALRC to their organized efforts in affecting
university policy, Murguia said that as a group, Hispanic faculty members are
heartened by what they have been able to accomplish under the Gates administration.
“We feel that Dr. Gates has created an opportunity for us to address these issues,” Arizpe said. “We have a voice and there’s somebody who listens.”
Ambassadors for A&M
Robert Gonzáles is one of Texas A&M’s many former students who not only is concerned about the low number of Hispanic students, but who is doing something about it.
In 2003, Gonzáles became one of the founding members of the Texas A&M Hispanic Network. A chartered constituent network of The Association of Former Students, the network brings together Hispanic former students to assist Gates in diversifying the student body, faculty and staff. Through this involvement, Gonzáles said he sees first-hand that encouraging Hispanic high school students to apply to Texas A&M is only part of the battle.
“A&M accepts a good number of Hispanics, but only half of them actually enroll,” he said.
Gonzáles and other network members contact Hispanic students once they are admitted to Texas A&M. He likens their job to “ambassadors for A&M” in Hispanic communities and high schools.
“We encourage them to go to A&M because we went there and had a
very good learning experience,” he said. “We can show them what
we’ve done with our degrees.”
Texas A&M enrolled its largest number of Hispanic freshmen in 1995, with 895 Hispanics representing 15 percent of the total student body. The following year, though, Texas courts ruled that race could no longer be used as a factor in public college admissions. The number of Hispanic freshmen plummeted.
Texas A&M and other state higher education institutions have struggled over the past decade to find innovative ways to educate more minority students. In Texas A&M’s case, those efforts have paid off. In fall 2004, the Hispanic network strove to exceed the 895-freshmen mark of 1995. They fell short with 869 Hispanic students representing 12.3 percent of incoming freshmen.
But their efforts weren’t deterred. They set an even more ambitious goal of 1,000 Hispanic freshmen for the fall 2005 semester. When admissions records were finalized, they found that 1,002 Hispanics had enrolled as new freshmen, making up 14.3 percent of the Class of ’09. It was the first time in history that Texas A&M enrolled more than 1,000 Hispanic freshmen.
“We think that at least part of that increase is because of our efforts,” Gonzáles
Díaz, too, is passionate about Texas A&M and is eager to spread the word. Though her involvement on the Hispanic Presidents’ Council, she helps to further the mission of the Prospective Student Centers in Houston — two of seven such centers across the state. Texas A&M established these centers to help high school students and their parents easily obtain admissions and financial aid information.
Díaz is also active in the Aggie VIP program, which brings high school
students to Texas A&M for a taste of campus life.
The student center and VIP recruiting initiatives are among countless university efforts geared toward convincing minority students to attend Texas A&M. One of Díaz ’ main goals in working with these students, she said, is to change the perception many of them have of Texas A&M — that it is not diversified and is unwelcoming to minorities.
Díaz hopes to reflect the same kind of friendliness and encouragement to a potential Hispanic Aggie that she found in the form of the Hispanic engineering society president. Texas A&M is such a large university that it can easily be intimidating to a new student — particularly a minority, Díaz said. First-generation Hispanic students need to see a face that looks like theirs, and their parents need to be comforted by someone who can speak their native language.
Florés agreed that different kinds of students have different kinds of needs. This is particularly important to keep in mind, she said, when working with Hispanic students who are the first in their families to attend college. It is vital that the university be prepared to "show them the ropes."
"There is more involved than just bringing Hispanic students to A&M," Flores said. "That is a great first step. Now we have to provide the necessary resources and a supportive environment to ensure that we can retain these students so they can graduate."
As to whether or not the Hispanic student body at Texas A&M will ever reflect state demographics, Díaz can't say.
"But if it ever does, then we can say that diversity has been achieved," she said. "Hopefully one day, we can get to that point."