A Look at the Growing Power of Latinos at CCNY
Jorge Orejas, a sophomore at the City College of New York, immigrated from Puebla, Mexico to the United States two years ago. In a short period of time, he started working a part-time job at Staples, and is studying as a full-time student at CCNY. Although Orejas is still mastering the art of speaking fluent English, that does not deter him from acquiring a college education.
In fact, Orejas begins his school day by showing the security guard his ID – and greeting him in Spanish. He then buys a small cup of coffee from the Starbucks on the second floor – and indulges the barista with a conversation in Spanish. Before classes start, he spends some time finishing up homework at the Dominican Institute Library, where he interacts with other students in Spanish.
“I never have a problem with any of my classes,” says Orejas, a Latin American Studies major. “It’s because all of my classmates are Latinos. My favorite class is actually a Jewish Studies seminar I’m taking this semester. Not a single person in that class is Jewish – they are all Latinos. They all speak my language.”
Orejas is an observer of – and a part of – a new trend at CCNY. Hispanics represent a growing minority group in the United States, but at City College, they comprise the largest ethnic group of the student body.
In fact, City College has undergone a dramatic ethnic shift in the last 25 years. The institution has always promoted diversity, but the mix is different. In 1990, African Americans represented the biggest force on an ethnically diverse campus – making up nearly 40 percent of students. However, for various reasons, the number of black students has dropped over two and a half decades to 20 percent. At the same time CCNY’s Latino population has grown – from 26.2 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent. In essence, nearly one in every three students at CCNY is Hispanic.
This trend is not limited to CCNY: Growing numbers of Latinos are attending college throughout the United States. According Pew Research Center, the number of Hispanic high school dropouts has plummeted over the past decade, from 32 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2013 and more and more Hispanics are continuing to college. The number of Hispanics enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges has tripled from 1993 to 2013 – from 728,000 to 2.2. million Hispanics.
Following this national trend, CCNY is now described as a “Hispanic-serving institution,” with Dominicans being the largest subset of Hispanics on campus. In fact, the first university-based research institute devoted to the study of Dominican culture in the U.S., the Dominican Studies Institute, is housed at City College. What’s more, a large number of students descended from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia and other countries commute - to Harlem from every borough. “Students are the heart and nervous system of this college,” says Sarah Aponte, the director of the Dominican Studies Institute Library here at CCNY. “The face that students are so diverse and come from all over says a lot about the image of City College.”
Aponte, who graduated from CCNY in 1994 and began the Library that same year, has noticed the increasing percentage of Hispanics over the past several years. “One of the reasons is because of the geographic accessibility of CCNY,” says Aponte. “Over the past 20 years, there have been a lot more Dominicans moving into Harlem and Washington Heights [and] even Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. CCNY provides an affordable option for an accessible college education.”
Latinos have long comprised the majority of citizens in nearby East Harlem, but the Hispanic population also increased by 42 percent in Central Harlem according to the U.S. Census, Hispanics are now the largest ethnic group in the Bronx at 55 percent.
CCNY offers a sensible option for all of these groups. “There are actually more Dominicans in the Bronx than in Washington Heights,” explains Aponte. “And although a lot of them go to Lehman, many come to CCNY because of architecture, engineering, and education.”
Helena Velasquez, a junior at CCNY, commutes from Parkchester, Bronx. “I could have easily gone to Lehman College, but I chose City College because there are so many Dominicans like me,” says Velasquez, a political science major. “Plus, even though I’m not studying engineering or becoming an architect, there is so much more available here. Coming here was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Arlynn Rosario, 21, another Dominican student, also commutes from the Bronx. She transferred from Manhattanville College and chose City over Lehman, which is closer to home. “I know where everything in Lehman College is, so I felt like I needed somewhat of a new environment,” says Rosario, an ad/PR major. “Once I got to City I feel like [it] is much more challenging and it teaches you to do things on your own. While I felt like in my private college we got more help, but here it’s just like you gotta help yourself. I feel like you’re able to grow here.”
Apart from the Hispanic students who live near City College, many commute much farther. In fact, according to City Facts, the majority of CCNY students live in Queens – which has an increasing mix of Latinos from all over the globe. Alvaro, who asked to use only his first name, is of Bolivian background descent. An engineering major with a minor in math, he commutes from Jackson Heights, Queens. He decided to come to CCNY because of the programs. “They offered a good engineering program,” he said. “I wanted to go to MIT; they also offered a good program and I could’ve gone to MIT, but City was the best possible choice.”
Alvaro likes the energy and the abundance of other Hispanic students -- which he calls a win-win situation and a point of pride that honors his immigrant parents. “It is a very activist school,” he said with excitement. “It’s almost a duty, because our parents brought us here; it’s our only duty.”
Regardless of where they come from, CCNY offers a strong support network for Latino students. With programs like SEEK, which provide opportunities and guidance for minority students, and clubs like LAESA-SHPE (Latin American Engineering Student Association-Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers) which offers assistance for Hispanic engineers, students have plenty of reasons for choosing CCNY other than the fact that they have family and friends here.
Many Hispanics students are also first generation Americans, notes Norma Fuentes, the director of Latin American & Latino Studies. As did the many immigrants who chose CCNY in the past, Latino students, most with multiple responsibilities, find CCNY a comfortable fit.
“Immigrant students are much smarter than what people credit them for,” Fuentes explains. “They spend a lot of time doing what their parents can’t do, like filling in as proxy parents if they are older siblings, earning wages by babysitting or cooking, making phone calls to Con Edison to fight with the landlady, going to doctors to interpret for their mothers. These immigrant youth have a different type of intelligence and social capital. As a result, they come to accessible colleges like CCNY to act upon these abilities.”
Of course, Latinos would not be the largest group on campus without the presence of another trend – the decrease of the proportion of African-American students on campus. In 1990, blacks made up nearly 40 percent of CCNY’s student body. Even earlier, during the days of open enrollment, the school boasted a vibrant (and controversial) Black Studies Department and a thriving publication, The Paper, which was a beacon of Black social justice and Civil Rights.
Currently, the percentage of black students has dropped to nearly half – 20.7 percent in 2013.
“There’s no denying that the African American population here has decreased, and the number of Latinos has gone up,” says Gordon Thompson, a professor in Black Studies, which is now a program not a department at CCNY. “Blacks who are native to America have decreased, and it’s due in part to the increase in the number of students across all other ethnicities.”
In the past ten years, the number of full-time undergrads has increased from 9,216 students in 2005 and 13,035 students in 2014. At the same time, the number of African American full-time undergrads has remained basically the same while Latinos (and other ethnicities) have flooded in. Thompson, who has been with the institution for 25 years, notes that this growth in the student body as a whole and other changes have stirred up the ethnic mix. “Blacks who are not native to the United States have grown in number, along with Dominicans, other people from South and Central America, Asians - and especially due to the decrease in crime – white people,” he says. “You have to really look at the numbers before you can say anything,”
Many students have also observed the changes. Beatrice Poku, a senior at CCNY, who is black, used to see more people of her ethnicity when she started her college education. “Just a couple of years ago, I used to walk into a classroom and see so many African Americans,” says Poku, who also works in the Admissions Office in the administration building. “Nowadays I’m always asking myself – where did all the black people go!?”
Even though Hispanics have been enjoying much success, they still face hurdles in the academic world. According to the Pew Research Institute nationally Hispanics lag behind other groups in obtaining a four-year degree. In 2013, among Hispanics ages 25 to 29, just 15 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 40 percent of whites, 20 percent of blacks and 60 percent of Asians. Why? Hispanics are less likely than some other groups to enroll in four-year colleges, attend academically selective institutions and enroll full-time.
Luisa Hernandez, a transfer student from Hostos Community College in the Bronx, details that struggle through her own experience. “I earned an associate degree in English from Hostos, but I didn’t feel done there,” says Hernandez, who enrolled as a full-time student in pursuit of a BA in Latin American Studies this year. “All of my siblings – and I have four – have gotten their associates degree, but gave up after that because they thought it was too expensive. They believed 20 years of school from Pre-K to college was enough, and that they needed to actually get jobs.”
Hernandez thought differently: “I knew that if I wanted to get a job I could actually be successful in, I had to work harder in learning more in college.”
However, the problems her siblings faced became her own: “Money actually was a huge problem. I come from a family where my single mother can’t work because she is disabled, and all my other family members are either struggling to find work or spend every penny to keep the rest of the family alive.”
Hernandez had to work before she could apply to college. “I became a sales assistant at American Apparel, but my problems didn’t end there,” she explains. “I had to actually get into a college – and applying isn’t easy, especially if you have no idea what you want to do.”
She knew she wanted to help the community she grew up in – the South Bronx – gain more prestige in the eyes of New Yorkers, but didn’t know how to approach that. “Colleges don’t like hearing that you have no direction, and I felt like I had that,” she says. “But CCNY saw something in me. They understood that I had the potential to do something great, and that a college education would help me figure out what I would actually do. Thank God for City College.”