by Pia K. Hansen
Carlos Maldonado grew up working in the fields, not because his family owned a farm but because they were migrant farm workers. Moving from farm to farm, following the crop cycles and the weather patterns was just part of ordinary life for the young Maldonado.
"Yes, it's true, I lived in the labor camps and I worked in the fields, moving from place to place," says Maldonado. "Eventually my family migrated here from Texas, and I went to school, but I've experienced the challenges."
Today Maldonado is the director of Eastern Washington University's Chicano Education Program, and as such he's working hard to recruit and retain college students from the migrant worker population in the Inland Northwest.
In July of this year, Maldonado got some of the best news he's gotten in a while: the U.S. Department of Education awarded his program a $1.4 million grant to further the outreach work to students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds.
"It's a College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) grant, and it will fund a five-year project to help us with recruitment and college work," says Maldonado. "Some of the money will go toward providing services for students once they get to college, and some money will go toward stipends for Chicano students. You know, many of them come from low-income backgrounds." Maldonado's program is one of only 13 nationwide that has received a grant.
"It's quite a feather in our cap," he says. "I have worked with other grants, but this is by far the largest we've ever got."
The Chicano Education program today has 300 students, but the grant will allow the program to grow at a fast pace over the next five years.
It's no secret that diversity needs a hand here in the Inland Northwest, with its predominantly white population base. It used to be that affirmative action programs -- what some refer to as "reverse discrimination" programs -- aimed to provide equal access to education and social services for minorities. But in the fall of 1998, Washington voters passed Initiative 200 -- an initiative that was closely modeled after California's also successful anti-affirmative action initiative. This officially put an end to priority treatment of minorities and left it up to the individual colleges and programs to make sure that entire minority populations weren't left behind.
At EWU, the passage of I-200 doesn't seem to have had a negative impact on the minority student population.
University spokeswoman Stefanie Pettit says the school has never used race as an admission base in the first place, and today it looks like minority enrollment is going up.
"The number of minority students in our incoming freshman class seems to be increasing," says Pettit. "Of the incoming freshmen in the fall of 2001, 14 percent were minorities." In the fall of '98 -- before I-200 -- the enrollment of minority students was 11.9 percent; in the fall of 2001 it was 11.1 percent.
Pettit says that Eastern's Board of Trustees has made a renewed commitment to increasing diversity at the school, something Maldonado applauds.
"I think our program is a lot bigger today than five years ago, when we didn't have the articulated initiative from the board of trustees," he says. "And the grant will help us do outreach, to go to the people we are trying to reach. That's key."
The Chicano program has several mentor programs to help students transition from the migrant worker environment to life on campus -- challenges Maldonado still remembers from his own time as a freshman.
"You live in poverty as a migrant worker and then you come to college, and you have more of a stable livelihood," says Maldonado. "That is certainly different, staying in the same place and to not have your life dictated by the weather -- it's a big step."
At Spokane Falls Community College, Pam Austin has been working as a multi-cultural specialist for the last 13 years. She counsels minority students -- especially freshmen -- and helps them integrate into the west Spokane campus.
"My job is very simply to retain and recruit students of color," says Austin. She works with high schools and community centers to get the information out to the minority groups.
"The students of color have very specific challenges. For instance, they may not have any money and they think they can't go to school because of that," says Austin. "And then there's their own self-worth; they simply don't see themselves as going to college. Sometimes they are the first generation that has graduated from high school in their family, so they don't have any role models at all."
SFCC has seen a slight drop in minority enrollment, going from about 13 percent in '98 to 12 percent in '01. During the same time span, Spokane Community College's campus minority student enrollment has gone up by 3 percent, to 13 percent.
"I don't think I-200 has had any impact on minority student enrollment at the Community Colleges," says Austin. "Well, I mean, at SCC they used to have waiting lists for some programs, where a certain number of students of color could get in, but they don't do that anymore."
Austin has great confidence in her program and her school's ability to help the minority students who hit the books.
"We have more than 5,000 students and just a little over 10 percent are minorities, so yes, there is some alienation," says Austin. "We are opening a multicultural center trying to make the students here feel more at home, feel like they have a safe place to go." At the orientation sessions for students of color, Austin encourages network building among her students -- and she goes out of her way to help them the first year or so.
"I treat them a little like children. I go with them to different places until they know the ropes. Some of the students who come in from the reservation suffer through incredible culture shock," she says.
At Washington State University in Pullman, there was a problem this year. At the minority student welcome reception, the banquet room was too small, so small that some students and their families ended up standing. But it was a happy problem.
"We were all crammed and sweaty," says Felicia Gaskins, associate vice provost for human relations and diversity. "Our minority enrollment is definitely up." In '98, there were 2,344 minority students at the Pullman campus, a number that dipped to 2,208 in 2000, then rose again to 2,356 in 2001.
"The only group that isn't up compared to last year is that of African Americans, but they are on the rise," says Gaskins. "As many as 16 percent of the freshman class this year are students of color. Last year that number was 15.6 percent."
Gaskins says WSU starts working with minority students as early as in middle school. "When we put our program together, we found that the most important part is to develop relationships with young people," she says.
She says that in general, the students who come to Pullman have better GPAs and are better prepared for college than they used to be.
"I'd say that the students of color are definitely keeping pace with their classmates," says Gaskins. The big question is whether they can keep that pace through to graduation.
"There was definitely a sense this summer that there were more minority students at the graduation celebration," says Gaskins. "I hope we are doing well enough to help them through to graduation -- that is, after all, the point."