Catherine Soriano said she considers herself lucky she had a smooth transition from Rockville High School to Montgomery College — a counselor helped her along the way.
That immediate transition to higher education doesn’t happen for about half of her Hispanic peers, according to a June report published in Montgomery County Public Schools, which captured graduates from 2001 to 2010.
Hispanic students in the county’s public schools are less likely to enroll in college right after high school than any other ethnic group, with 50 percent enrolling, and are the least likely to obtain a Bachelor’s degree or higher degree within six years of enrolling, with 39 percent obtaining a degree.
White and Asian students groups see about 77 percent enrolling and about 73 percent of those who enroll obtaining a degree.
Soriano, president of the Latino Student Union at Montgomery College’s Rockville Campus, helped bring Deborah Santiago, co-founder of D.C.-based Excelencia in Education, to speak to what Latino students go through, and what administrators and staff can do to help. The organization is a nonprofit that aims to accelerate higher education success for Latino students through program analysis and advocacy.
About 30 faculty, staff and students attended Santiago’s seminar.
Soriano said she and the other officers of the club want to see that the Latino community feels welcome at Montgomery College.
It is all about the four “I’s,” Santiago said Friday — intentionality, inclusivity, individual and institutional.
Schools must be intentional in offering support for specific student groups such as Latinos, must be inclusive in their offerings, must offer individual support to students and must institutionalize their efforts, she said.
“The reality of it is, if you are not intentional in serving your students, and paying attention to who they are, you aren’t going to serve them well,” Santiago said.
While funding for staff such as counselors and special programs are important, it is more important that the institution as a whole works to be welcoming of Latino students, she said.
About 3,547 Hispanic students were enrolled at Montgomery College last year — about 13.1 percent of the 26,996-person student body.
The Hispanic population in Montgomery County is growing. Hispanics comprised 17 percent of Montgomery County’s total population in 2010, compared to 12 percent in 2000, according to census data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center. Of the 971,777 people who lived in the county in 2010, 165,398 were Hispanic.
Legislation passed in Maryland in 2008 required all public and private institutions to develop a diversity plan, said Michelle T. Scott, Montgomery College’s chief equity and diversity officer.
Montgomery College’s plan, first published in 2009, outlined how they would work over the next three years to increase recruitment and support for minority students at the school.
The college has done much over the last three years for Latino students, Scott said.
The college worked with Montgomery County Public Schools to see that Latino parents were familiar with financial aid and other aspects of college enrollment, increased the amount of bilingual literature that it offered and made sure that students had counseling support at school, Scott said.
Many Hispanic students are referred to Linda Robinson, a Montgomery College counselor who speaks Spanish. Robinson gives students information and talks to them about their needs, she said.
Montgomery College has two recruiters targeting the Latino community and a bilingual outreach coordinator who conducts workshops in English and Spanish at high schools and middle schools to promote the importance of a college education.
The college offers several programs that provide transitional services to students of different backgrounds, such as the American English Language Program and Guiding the Pathways of Success, which serves mostly minority students.
Robinson sees a need for a more diverse staff at Montgomery College, as she said students need to have access to people who have had the same experiences as them.
Although its students represent 170 nationalities, the Montgomery College staff is 70 percent white; there are 51 Hispanic faculty members out of 1,309 total.
“It is about having a person who understands that experience — who makes them feel welcome, who makes them feel safe,” Robinson said.
On Friday, Santiago suggested the college implement a name-pronunciation course for staff, as she said little things like pronouncing a student’s name correctly as they walk across the stage make everyone feel welcome.
Laura White, a multicultural training specialist, said later she would work on getting the course into the school.
“People need to know that there are other people like them,” Soriano said Friday. “We want to help them stay the path they want to stay.”