Sep 222011
 
Authors: Andrew Carrera

Enrique Carbajal remembers walking onto CSU’s campus during his freshman year feeling immediately like a stranger.

“It was like discovering a new place. It’s foreign to you, and you don’t really know what to expect. You’re there for a reason, but you’re still kind of figuring that out,” said the sophomore political science major. “I felt homesick.”

But these typical first-year anxieties were intensified by one crucial factor.

“Latinos are a minority here. I felt really out of place,” he said.

But at the CSU student group known as La Raza, he felt at home. The organization started in November 2009, and with its 40 members has been a “familia,” or family to Hispanic students who have gone from being surrounded by people who understand their culture, customs, language and beliefs to a CSU campus that has a Latino population of approximately 7 percent.

Apart from their regular year-round activities, the group has recently been fighting to keep Latino culture alive at CSU by setting up a week of cultural events stretching from Sept. 16 to Thursday night in commemoration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

They most recently gathered Thursday night and ate together at the local Raising Cane’s chicken fingers restaurant.

“Our organization is more of a family away from campus,” said La Raza President David Gonzalez. “Tonight is more of a social event –– a family dinner.”

The group also hosted events like “El Grito de Independencia,” meet and greets, a study night and a fundraiser, speaking to the history of Mexico and other Latin American countries. They will also host a “Noche Latina” in collaboration with the Hispanic culture center known as El Centro on Oct. 23, which will display traditional fashion, music, food and dance.

“Besides El Centro and couple of (Multicultural Greek Councils), there’s not really anything that goes on to celebrate it,” Gonzalez said.

The lack of campus Latino cultural events has been overwhelming at times for some CSU Hispanics. Janelle Ramirez, a La Raza member and junior environmental health major, remembered wanting to initially transfer to a university in San Diego because she felt so out of place.

“I went home every weekend to get that family feel,” she said.

But after joining the organization, Ramirez said she got that sense of “familia” she had been missing. It motivated her to get engaged at CSU, and ultimately deterred her decision to switch schools.

“La Raza has had a tremendous impact on my career as a college student,” she said.

This kind of higher education achievement is central to the organization, said the group’s advisor and community organizer Mayra Granados. Other Latinos she has encountered have wanted to transfer to community colleges in Denver and Greeley to be closer to home but decided to stay on campus after finding La Raza.

“At the end of the day we can spread awareness about the issues in our culture going on, but higher education is what is important to us,” she said, adding that she hopes students take advantage of the family mentality in her organization as a way to endure the trials that come with being a minority student in college.

“We’re doing this for that student who graduates from college, gets a masters degree, gets a PHD and says, ‘La Raza was one of the things that kept me going through all that,’” she said.

That way, they can be effective advocates for issues they care about –– like education and immigration.

“It’ll be coming from a student who is educated and has graduated and knows what’s going on,” Granados said.

University officials said they are also working to retain and help students from diverse backgrounds. Mary Ontiveros, vice president of diversity at CSU, pointed to university programs like Commitment to Colorado and the Alliance Partnership that help disadvantaged individuals with the costs of tuition.

“CSU leads the state on affordability for low income students,” she said, and has created strategic outreach programs designed to make the university appealing to minority students. Officials have not only reached out to diverse high schools, but also the communities in which they reside.

The university has also “worked very hard to make sure that we retain students,” she said.

During the 2009-2010 school year, Latino enrollment at CSU increased by 18 percent.

But Granados isn’t convinced of the university’s commitment to its minority students.

“Don’t just tell me you’re trying to keep me here … The day that I see (CSU president) Tony Frank attend an event that La Raza or El Centro is holding is the day that I know that they support us and care about retention,” she said. “When you’re one of those students who identifies as Hispanic, (retention efforts) are really not that impressive because you don’t see that support.”

Senior Reporter Andrew Carrera can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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