Idaho’s first Hispanic-serving institution: Is it living up to its title?

Monica Carrillo-Casas, Times-News

Last fall semester, College of Southern Idaho student Mari Ramirez talked to a professor after having a hard time constantly having to translate English to Spanish and wanted to see if she could get additional help.

“They asked me what my diagnosis was and I told them ‘I don’t have a diagnosis; English is my second language and I’m struggling to understand some of the class,’” Ramirez told the Times-News.

Her professor told her they didn’t have any help like that and instead, gave her a number for the disabled.

Ramirez ended up failing the class.

“This is the first time I’ve told anybody about all of this,” she said between sobs during an interview last week.

CSI has appealed to Hispanic students in south-central Idaho, not only for its proximity to home for many, but also since receiving its Hispanic-serving Institution title in 2021.

Through this title and an awarded grant, the college is working on a five-year partnership with Jerome High School as one of their main focuses to help more Hispanic students enroll.

Kayleigh Simmons, College of Southern Idaho’s Diversity Council president, speaks Wednesday during a meeting at the Student Union Building. HANNAH KINSON, TIMES-NEWS

Existing students at CSI, however, feel like there’s still areas on campus that need to be improved, including accommodations that could benefit Hispanic students struggling with English and increasing bilingual faculty across the institution.

“Once you’re certified into a program, I feel like they need to have specific help for Hispanic students,” Ramirez said. “It’s not easy to translate your primary language to another language. I had to learn on my own.”

Seven years ago, Ramirez and her family moved to Twin Falls from Oaxaca, Mexico, after obtaining their citizenship.

She attended and graduated from Canyon Ridge High School and then applied to CSI to get her associate’s degree. She wanted to become a nurse.

“I was constantly reading and studying, but for me, it was really hard to translate and understand some of the lessons,” Ramirez said.

She would go to her professors and ask if there was anything that she should focus on to help her pass, in which they would tell her to just “read the book,” she said.

“The same professor that asked me if I had a diagnosis told me that if she were me and only spoke English and went to a country that only spoke Spanish, she would drop out of the program because she knew she would fail,” Ramirez said.

She would constantly leave that classroom crying and feeling devastated.

“I would just look at my graded work and start to cry,” Ramirez said

Only 4% of CSI’s full-time staff are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, while 29% of the student body is Hispanic.

Title V grant manager Eduardo Reyes speaks with the Times-News on Tuesday at the College of Southern Idaho. As Idaho’s only Hispanic-serving institution, CSI received a five-year grant in October 2022 that the college will use to partner with the Jerome School District to increase the number of students who pursue post-secondary education.

Eduardo Reyes, Title V Grant manager for CSI, told the Times-News that one way the college is trying to help students who feel more comfortable with Spanish is making syllabuses bilingual.

After talking to faculty, 15 of them committed to modify sections of their courses to be more “culturally responsive,” Reyes said.

Much of the issues, however, lie in the language barriers and stringing together lesson plans.

Ramirez recalled that near the end of the semester, a bilingual professor in the certified nursing assistant program went up to her after she saw her crying. Since that day, she has been one of the few professors who has helped her.

“She would explain things to me in English and then explain it to me in Spanish,” Ramirez said. “She told me that anytime I needed help with my homework that I could go into her classroom…

“I feel like if I would have gone to her sooner, I would’ve been able to pass the program because she was the only professor that actually made time to explain things to me.”

Gabriela Jaime, a sophomore at CSI, also said that having more Spanish-speaking staff would benefit the large Hispanic student body.

Students wait for a Diversity Council meeting to begin on Wednesday at the College of Southern Idaho Student Union Building. HANNAH KINSON, TIMES-NEWS

“I know of a couple students who are comfortable with just speaking Spanish because it is their native language,” Jaime said. “So I feel like it’s important to take a class with a Latino professor because it just gives us an insight that we are important too, which also ties in with having a Hispanic counselor.

“I feel like it would help staff understand what the Hispanic community has gone through and all the struggles we have on a day-to-day life.”

Jaime also said it could help Hispanic students feel more comfortable talking about their mental health.

For students like Ramirez and Jaime, representation and language matters and can even determine why they choose a college.

What does “Hispanic-serving institution” mean?

A Hispanic-serving institution is an accredited, degree-granting, public or private nonprofit institution with 25% or higher of Hispanic or Latino students attending full-time.

After years of anticipating they’d reach that number, CSI saw it happen in 2021.

CSI was the first Idaho school to receive this title and continues to be the only Hispanic-serving institution in the state; it is also one of fewer than 600 in the United States, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

With the title, CSI can apply for more federal grants, often in the millions of dollars, to better serve students.

Griselda Vazquez, coordinator of the College of Southern Idaho’s Title V Bridge to Success, speaks with the Times-News on Tuesday at the Taylor Building in Twin Falls. As Idaho’s first Hispanic-serving institution, CSI received a five-year grant in October 2022 that it will use to partner with the Jerome School District to increase the number of students who pursue post-secondary education. HANNAH KINSON, TIMES-NEWS

This equals more programs, more resources, more bilingual faculty and staff and overall a sense of belonging on campus for many Hispanic students who might not be getting support at home.

CSI spokesperson Courtney Salmon clarified that the college still continues to serve all students, not just Hispanic students.

“A lot of people think that because CSI is an HSI that it’s really serving Hispanic people,” Salmon said. “Obviously, we want our Hispanic population here. And we love them, and we want them here.

“And you know, I really think it’s just going to grow, especially with our soccer program coming in and stuff like that,” she said. “I think it’s going to be amazing.

“I just — there’s a stigma out there. And yeah, we want to squash it.”

After receiving the title, CSI, in 2022, was awarded a $2.5 million grant that the college could use over the next five years toward getting more students to attend college.

According to a 2022 press release, CSI uses the funds to partner with the Jerome School District to increase the number of students who pursue post-secondary education.

The money is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions program.

“Within this grant, we have different objectives, different outcomes that we’re trying to achieve and working with our Hispanic population, both on campus and off campus, as well as in the Magic Valley community,” CSI’s Reyes said.

By partnering with Jerome High School, Reyes hope to make an immediate impact. Forty percent of Jerome’s demographic is Hispanic, along with more than 55% of students in the district.

Reyes is also working alongside Griselda Vazquez, Title V Bridge to Success coordinator, to help Jerome High School Hispanic students with college support.

“We’re hoping that through that program and through these next couple of years with the grant, we see the Hispanic rate go up from 41% to 50%,” Reyes said.

The title, however, doesn’t require changes to be made, making it more about a staff and faculty willingness to understand cultural differences and make accommodations for students in and outside classrooms.

Salmon told the Times-News that CSI President Dean Fisher has left it up to the staff to find a solution to make sure everyone feels included.

“He’s really put in the word to try and get each staff and faculty member to really delve deep and to connect to their students on a monocultural and personal level,” Salmon said.

Gaby Rangel reads a card for an icebreaker on Wednesday during a Diversity Council meeting at the CSI Student Union Building in Twin Falls. HANNAH KINSON, TIMES-NEWS

A sense of cultural belonging

Jaime saw the Hispanic-serving Institution title and knew that choosing CSI was a no-brainer.

She wants to become a translator in the medical field.

“Since I was little, I would always help my parents translate and would always make sure to help others that were struggling with the language barrier,” Jaime said. “I want their voices to be heard.”

For her, seeing the title reminded her how important it was that each Hispanic student attending CSI was fighting for their dreams and were accomplishing dreams their families couldn’t.

Hoping to fulfill that sense of advocacy for Hispanic and Latino students on campus, CSI is planning a council called “Latinos Unidos” that will have direct ties to the institution.

“I met with a variety of different Hispanic students from different clubs to just kind of hear their concerns about what they were feeling,” Reyes said. “So when I brought the idea of Latinos Unidos, they were very excited because we haven’t had a club that’s specifically for Latino students.”

The only club at CSI that would come close to this mission of bringing in more Hispanics is the Diversity Council, where a variety of Hispanic students have joined to meet like-minded folks.

“We figured let’s start our own internal council for Latino students versus going external, because Latinos in Action was a national program,” Reyes said.

They have also created a new degree called “Spanish for Heritage Speakers.” This program allows native speakers to augment their oral language skills that feels much more comfortable to them.

For now, two faculty members run the program and because it’s so new, they won’t have a report until the end of the 2023-24 school year.

“We’re still within our first year of this grant so there’s a lot of things that are still in the gray area that we haven’t had to do,” Reyes said. “But I’m really excited that as these things start happening, that we start promoting them, that we start putting them up for the community to know about.”

Ramirez has since switched programs where she feels like she still has to navigate much of her studies on her own but said she feels more confident in herself than before.

“I don’t feel like I did before, not as anxious,” Ramirez said. “But I still don’t have professors really helping me with my language difficulties and still have to translate my homework assignments so I understand.”

Cover Photo: Ximena Villafaña-Cuervas laughs at an icebreaker during a Diversity Council meeting on Wednesday at the College of Southern Idaho Student Union Building. The Diversity Council is the only club that closely relates to the institution. Hoping to fulfill that sense of advocacy for Hispanic and Latino students on campus, CSI is working on a council called “Latinos Unidos” that will have direct ties to the institution. HANNAH KINSON, TIMES-NEWS

Publisher’s Notes: Idaho’s first Hispanic-serving institution: Is it living up to its title? was first published in the Times-News.

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