I was fortunate to attend Eastern Washington University as an undergraduate; I started as a freshman in the fall of 1994. When I arrived at EWU, I experienced culture shock; coming from Pasco High School where the Latino student population was already at or above 50 percent, I had never seen so many white people in one place. I was intimidated and I felt totally out of place.
What stopped me from turning around and going back home? I was fortunate to find support through Eastern’s Chicano Education Program, which provided me the critical transition I desperately needed to navigate an environment that was foreign to me.
The Chicano Education Program, held a carne azada (BBQ) in Sutton Park to welcome Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x freshman students and acquaint us with peers as we prepared to embark on a journey that would transform our lives. Most of my peers had similar backgrounds: parents who were farm workers with little or no formal education and barely knew how to read and/or write.
When I graduated from EWU in 1999 with the assistance of both state-funded (Chicano Education) and federally-funded programs (Student Support Services & McNair), the total number of “Hispanic” students attending the institution stood at 227. So you can just imagine how I felt when stepping on campus for the first time as a freshman five years earlier. Fast forward to 2018; a total of 2,615 “Hispanic/Latino” students are currently enrolled at EWU; this is a 1,051% increase in the Latino student population in less than 20 years! Additionally, an analysis of current student enrollment data shows the “White” student population enrolled at EWU peaked in 2014 at 10,853.
This is why EWU is taking the lead in exploring best practices on how to serve this student population with its inaugural EWU Cinco de Mayo Latino Forum on May 3. We must address this trend now or we will miss a great opportunity to educate this underserved population.
Let me further explain the backdrop to these trends at EWU. In 2017, the overall Latino population in Washington state was 12.7 percent, and it is projected to increase to 17 percent by 2040. (It is likely these figures will be higher, considering that this population has always exceeded the U.S. Census projections). Although the Latino population in Spokane currently sits at 5.7 percent, consider other parts of Eastern Washington: Yakima’s Latino population is at almost 50 percent; Grant County’s is at almost 42 percent, Tri-Cities at 32 percent, the greater Wenatchee area is at 29.4 percent and Walla Walla at 20.6 percent. All these metro areas are student recruitment hubs for EWU. These statistics clearly show that Eastern Washington is much more Latino than either the state as a whole or the U.S.
Nationally, the Latino population now makes up approximately 18.1 percent of the overall U.S. population and is projected to reach 29 percent by 2050. Right now, more than 16 percent of Eastern Washington University’s student body is “Hispanic.” That share is projected to increase dramatically in the next five to 10 years, eventually allowing EWU to acquire the status of a Hispanic Serving Institution and with that, gain access to federal funds to support certain programs.
Why will this share grow? A quick overview of the largest Eastern Washington school districts gives us a glimpse of the future. For example, in 2017-18, at schools in my hometown of Pasco, 71 percent of enrolled students were Latino. Just across the river, the Kennewick School District’s Latino enrollment is 36 percent. Consider the shares for other districts: Yakima, 79 percent; Wenatchee, 51 percent; Moses Lake, 48 percent; and Spokane, 10 percent. All these school districts are considered feeder schools for EWU.
As federal and state funding for higher education institutions remains flat or in decline, students are having to pay more and more out of pocket for tuition expenses. All these factors present both opportunities and challenges for EWU and other colleges and universities in the region. For these reasons, concerted and purposeful efforts need to be made to invest resources to properly serve this student population; these investments will pay dividends that will continue to sustain the university and the region for generations to come.
This is why EWU is stepping up to serve these students, and why the university is excited to host the Cinco de Mayo Latino Forum. Educators and community members are invited to attend this event and help shape the future direction of our institution. For more information and to register for the Latino Forum click on the following link: https://sites.ewu.edu/latinoforum/.
Written by Martín Meráz García, Ph.D., interim director of the Chicana/o Studies and College Assistant Migrant Program in collaboration with Patrick Jones, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University. Some of the data was also drawn from Institutional Research at EWU & the Pew Hispanic Research Center.
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