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A Community Connection: Professor Recruits from Within

The Latino population is Pennsylvania’s only growing population, and IUP’s student recruiters have long looked at this group as a market with great potential, but one they’ve had difficulty attracting.

“It’s more than just recruiting students; you have to recruit their families,” said Mike Husenits, director of undergraduate admissions. Fortunately, IUP has a longtime supporter who has done exactly that.


Victor Garcia with Qiana Lightner, a 2009 graduate of the Cook Honors College, who returned to IUP in April 2013 as part of the CALSA speaker series. She is an adjunct professor of sociology at Harrisburg Community College and a staff associate in the State System’s Office of the Chancellor in Harrisburg.

Since 1993, anthropology professor Victor Garcia has been conducting research in southern Chester County, known as the mushroom belt as it’s responsible for up to 40 percent of the nation’s mushroom production. Much of the work force is made up of immigrants, those who have relocated permanently from Mexico, and migrant workers, who come and go between the U.S. and Mexico.

Garcia’s research has focused on addiction, poverty, and other issues among migrant workers, but for the last decade, he has made it a side task to educate the communities about the importance of higher education and, in effect, draw students to IUP. He estimates he has recruited 7 to 10 students from the mushroom belt in each of those years.

“Some of the students I’m recruiting now I knew as children when I was doing my earlier research,” he said. “I think it takes that kind of connection with family and community to be successful in recruiting.”

Garcia said southern Chester County is an ideal market because immigrant families have a strong work ethic and don’t face the social issues common in urban areas. “You’re not going to have rapid gang activity or an underground economy based on drugs and other criminal pursuits,” he said.

Also, the population there is booming. Schools bring in temporary trailers to accommodate the students while the buildings are being expanded, he said.

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IUP’s first Latino reception with all five Latino student organizations present was held in September 2013. The Ritmo Latino Dance Crew, which aims to promote Latino culture through dance, provided entertainment. (Marc Colón photo)

Garcia and his wife, anthropologist Laura Gonzalez, live out of an apartment in Chester County every other weekend during the semester and longer over the summer. While they give some formal presentations at schools, being part of the community has opened the door to casual conversations with families about how higher education in this country is for everyone, not just the wealthy, and how it can change lives. Gonzalez, a former professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who shares her husband’s vision, created and directed a nonprofit in Dallas devoted to increasing the number of Latino students in colleges.

Among the obstacles to attracting the Chester County students to IUP are finances and location, Garcia said. As immigrants, the parents may be without an established credit record and, therefore, have challenges qualifying or helping their children to qualify for a loan. The brightest of the students are likely to be snatched up by private institutions and their greater scholarship resources.

As far as location, if the students balk at the five-hour drive to IUP, Garcia reminds them, “Your parents’ village is a lot farther than that, yet they came here, and their life has changed for the better.”

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Victor Garcia, second from right, runs the program Caring about Latino Student Achievement, with help from students including, from left, Pamela Guzman, Jennifer Rahal-Moore, and Marc Colón. (Keith Boyer photo)

Garcia’s involvement in the students’ lives continues well after he has recruited them. In 2008, he started College Prep 101 for Latinos, a program aimed at retaining Latino and other minority students that he modeled after a program his wife developed in Texas. It has since been recast as Caring about Latino Student Achievement, better known as CALSA, and expanded in mission to preparing those students for graduate or professional school.

CALSA offers student-led guidance on finding scholarships, internships, and other resources, plus a speaker series that invites successful Latino and other minority alumni back to campus. It also involves a healthy dose of direction from Garcia, who meets with students beginning their first semester.

“I ask them, ‘What are you going to do when you finish IUP? Have you thought about graduate school?’”

The students are shocked by the question, he said, thinking their educational journey was to end with the bachelor’s degree. That’s when he shares with them his story.

Surviving the Storm: As shrinking high school class sizes take their toll on student enrollment, IUP must rely on innovation to weather the challenge.

College was not in Garcia’s plans, even as he entered high school. At the encouragement of a school counselor, he started taking college-prep courses his junior year and enrolled at the University of California at Davis.

As he arrived on campus on a Greyhound, he looked around and saw other students and their parents unloading stereos and skis from their cars. His parents, who were not educated past the eighth grade, had to work that day, and carrying just two oversized suitcases, he went alone in search of his dorm.

In his first quarter at UC Davis, he was on academic probation, but he gradually improved his grades to all A’s his senior year.

“I learned how to write and I learned how to think critically as well,” he said.

When professors took interest and asked if he was going to graduate school, he gave them the same “who me?” response he now hears from his students. But he went on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford and a master’s and PhD from UC Santa Barbara.

“Education is the great equalizer,” he tells his students. “You may come from a poor family, but if you get a good education, your life is going to change for the better.”

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The fourth annual Noche Latina, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, was held in October. The “All Hallows’ Eve” event was sponsored by the Hispanic Heritage Council, Latino Student Organization, and CALSA. (Keith Boyer photo)

Garcia puts the students he advises through CALSA on a plan to develop a strong academic profile: an internship the summer after the freshman year, application to the McNair Scholars program when they return, a second internship after the sophomore year, and study abroad. He knows it’s a competitive profile; he has spent 10 years as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship and has seen the competition from schools like Brown and Yale.

“If our students can come out with a profile that looks like their profile, they can be just as competitive,” he said.

One of the greatest barriers to academic success for Latino students, he said, is the lack of a strong presence on campus—no more than 500 students on a campus of nearly 15,000.

“When there’s no presence, it’s easy to feel like an outsider,” he said, “just as I felt like an outsider when I was a freshman.” But the prominence of Latino student organizations on campus will help the students “to feel at home and stay.”

The university’s first Latino reception with all five student organizations present was held in September. Garcia sees that kind of collaboration—along with IUP’s hiring last year of Irvin Rivera, an admissions counselor who focuses on the recruitment of Latinos—as a sign of a pivotal moment on campus.

“I haven’t seen this kind of synergy, directed at this population, since I arrived here 23 years ago,” he said. “This is what it’s going to take.”

More from the Fall-Winter 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

Surviving the Storm

Surviving the Storm

As shrinking high school class sizes take their toll on student enrollment, IUP must rely on innovation to weather the challenge

Dr. Rock

Dr. Rock

Mike Barnett came to IUP to grow musically. Twenty years later, the CU-Boulder faculty member has enlisted the help of an IUP mentor on his latest project—a fusion of metal, rock, and jazz

Message from the President

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Namedroppers | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Homecoming, 80 Years Later

As thousands of alumni returned to campus in October to celebrate Homecoming 2013, they continued a tradition that has spanned eight decades

Room to Move

Since the start of the Fall semester, students have had access to a new gymnasium adjacent to the Hadley Union Building


Women are no longer outsiders in distance running, even in races beyond 100 miles, due in part to the trailblazing Marcy Schwam