For Richard Diaz and his family, immigrants from Peru, Salt Lake Community College has been an educational cornerstone.
They found themselves living in the Kearns and West Valley area upon moving to Utah. Diaz’s parents attended SLCC, becoming the first to learn English and later complete a certificate through the School of Applied Technology. Diaz’s older brother started at SLCC before leaving to join the military, and his second oldest brother, after returning from the military, pursued a criminal justice degree at SLCC.
“This institution is written into the story of my family,” Diaz said, “and I believe its impact can also be felt across multiple communities that represent the Latinx diaspora.”
Diaz told his family’s story in February during SLCC’s annual 360 event, in which the college communicates its strategic goals to staff and faculty. Though in past years the event has been relatively general, this year’s event focused on SLCC’s status as an emerging Hispanic-serving institution, or HSI.
Diaz and Alonso Reyna Rivarola, also an immigrant from Peru, hold directorial staff positions at SLCC and recently began acting as co-leads of the Emerging HSI Collaborative Work Team. College leadership created the work team to address the needs of Latinx students and to develop a formalized plan for SLCC to become an HSI.
The federal government grants an official HSI designation to institutions whose Latinx students account for 25% of the total student body, allowing them to receive specialized grants. According to SLCC’s fact book, full-time Hispanic students account for 19.3% of total students as of 2021, the highest percentage figure of any higher-ed institution in Utah.
But for Diaz, Rivarola and the collaborative work team, their goal to better serve Latinx students stands regardless of a federal designation.
“As the only higher education institution located on the diverse west side of Salt Lake, SLCC is strategically positioned to provide access to higher education to students from these communities,” Diaz said.
SLCC President Deneece Huftalin echoed this point, saying, “If Salt Lake County is our service area, we need to reflect that service area.”
During the February event, SLCC shared data showing that the Hispanic population saw the largest growth of college-age individuals in Salt Lake County in 2021 – 53% as opposed to 14% for non-Hispanic.
However, the formation of the HSI work team coincided with a drop in completion rates among Latinx students from 2020 to 2021, whereas other students of color saw a small, overall increase despite the pandemic.
In addition, the opportunity gap in completion among Latinx students, which measures the percentage difference in completion rates between students of color and their white peers, also widened by 8% from 2020 to 2021.
“This speaks again to the idea that student experience isn’t the same across all populations,” said Jeff Aird, vice president of Institutional Effectiveness at SLCC.
Sendys Estevez, the college’s Student Success coordinator for Latinx students, said the pandemic likely exacerbated existing problems facing first-generation Latinx students, a population she regularly works with.
“Just stepping on a college campus and dealing with everything that college is, from college language […] the navigating of two worlds of their life as a Latinx individual, and then being a first-generation Latinx student in a predominantly white institution […] that itself is very overwhelming, it can be intimidating,” Estevez said.
Estevez also pointed out the added challenge among Latinx students, particularly those who are undocumented, in being eligible and qualifying for federal student aid, making tuition payment difficult or unfeasible if they cannot obtain federal help.
Like Estevez, Diaz works with Latinx students through programs such as Bruin Scholars and Summer Bridge. These programs, predating the current work of the HSI work team, are designed to help incoming high school students from marginalized backgrounds succeed at SLCC by offering peer mentorship, personalized assistance and connection to resources.
“The mere fact that programs like this exist I think point to larger, systematic issues that many of our minoritized populations face as they transition from high school, or from adult life in workforce, into higher education,” Diaz said.
“College in general […] when you date back historically, thinking about who it was created for – as well as when you think about the emergence of Hispanic-serving Institutions – the things that they all have in common is that those colleges always, always, always started as predominantly white colleges,” Diaz continued.
A large topic of the February event revolved around what SLCC as an institution can do to better serve existing and future Latinx students. This idea also acts as a main pillar of the HSI work team.
“To us, at the heart of being an HSI, is not just serving Latinx students, but fundamentally re-imagining our practices with minoritized students at the center,” Rivarola said.
The event included various breakout sessions, some of which discussed methods for increasing diversity in applicant pools, community engagement in cities with a notable Hispanic population – like West Valley and Kearns, and the development of a “Justice & Equity Framework” by Student Affairs to be used when determining the effectiveness and future of academic programs – otherwise known as program review.
Student Affairs based the framework on the recommendations from “Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions” by Dr. Gina Ann Garcia, an associate professor in the Department of Educational, Foundations, Organizations and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Garcia’s research focuses on HSIs, Latinx college students, and race and racism in higher education. Garcia was also the keynote speaker for the February event.
More broadly, Maria Farrington, former chair and current member of SLCC’s Board of Trustees, said that the board had adopted the Utah System of Higher Education Equity Lens Framework, a tool that informs institutional decision making based on the closing of opportunity gaps for marginalized populations.
“More recently, this year,” Farrington said, “we are discussing what, as trustees, we can do to advocate and to provide outreach to communities that are often marginalized, and really overlooked.”
Another aspect of serving Latinx students has come in the introduction and continued support of events that reflect Hispanic cultural identity.
In his research, Diego Pliego Nava, a qualitative researcher for the college’s institutional research group and member of the HSI work team, found that roughly 40% of Latinx students reported a lack of belonging at SLCC. Further, nearly 31% of Latinx students said they could not identify with someone at the college.
“A lot of [Latinx students] felt that [their] status as a non-traditional student impacted the way that they were able to engage socially with others outside just the classroom,” Nava said.
SLCC student Belen Castro Ruiz noted the importance of representation, a lack of which resulted in negative experiences for Latinx students in Nava’s research.
“It’s also important to see role models that look like you,” Ruiz said. “It’s my third semester here [at SLCC], and never before have I seen a Latina woman as a professor,” referring to Assistant Professor Cindy Fierros.
“She was […] such as an inspiration for me, she was my role model. It was sad because I hadn’t seen that before, but also amazing because it was my first time,” Ruiz continued.
In recent years, SLCC has seen events put on by school groups that aim to foster representation. In April 2021, the Taylorsville Redwood campus held a public unveiling of the college’s first commissioned Latinx mural, painted by a DACA student and organized by the college’s Latinx Heritage Committee, in which Estevez acted as the chair.
More recently in October 2021, the West Valley Center – which holds the college’s Dream Center, an office dedicated to assisting undocumented students – hosted an event called “Redefining Chicanidad” in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
The event, named after the identifier for people of Mexican descent born in the United States, was open to everyone and showcased lowrider cars and lowrider bikes built by local community members. Attendees also mingled while partaking in “gorditas,” a traditional Mexican dish.
But in addition to lowriders and food, the event also featured three workshops presented by Hispanic educators, which broadened the scope of the term “Chicanidad” and promoted education by engaging Hispanic cultural identity.
Xris Macias – former director of University of Utah’s Dream Center, co-founder of the Lowrider Studies Journal, and presenter of one of the event’s workshops – said he believes it is key to reflect Hispanic identity in education in order to promote their success.
“The more we see ourselves built into the college, the more success we will have,” Macias said.
“Lowriders, especially,” Macias continued, “have been seen as something negative, something bad, something gang-affiliated. That’s not true, so we have to say, ‘let’s actually validate that and make it more academic so that people can continue and use that as a form of study.’”
HSI work team and the future
The HSI work team, comprised of 25 SLCC staff and faculty members, have begun holding monthly meetings to discuss goals, program implementations, data and literature, and the outline for SLCC to follow over the next few years, including a proposed structure for leadership and steady support.
According to Diaz, a question that is often asked by college community members when discussing SLCC as an HSI is what the initiative means for other people of color and white peers.
Diaz noted that while the college is focusing on accommodating the Latinx population because they represent Salt Lake County and SLCC’s fastest-growing demographic outside of white populations, the work of the HSI work team aims to better serve all populations across the board.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘rising tides raise old boats,’” Diaz said. “If we’re serving this group, this community that has been marginalized for years […] and we have a framework in which how we do this, we can use the same framework to serve other students and other communities that have been marginalized just the same or more.”
Estevez added, “By serving Latinx students more fully we’re really serving more students of color more fully. So, it’s not a focus or a Latinx-students-only type of situation, because if that were the case, we’d be replicating an issue that we’ve been fighting for decades.”
Estevez said that change rarely comes without mistakes, adding, “we’re not gonna get it right 100% of the time.” But Estevez remains confident that the desire among staff and faculty to better serve SLCC’s student population will promote success.
“I think a key thing that will really help us move along on this journey […] is communication amongst our departments […] and a shared sense of vision for what it is that we’re looking to do,” Estevez said. “We want to serve anyone that walks through our doors the best way that we can, given who they are, what it is that they want to accomplish, and what their vision is for that.”