The Latino student body at UW-Milwaukee has gone through an impressive transformation in the last forty years, growing from 14 students enrolled in 1970 to 2,224 today. Additionally, recent plans to make UWM a Hispanic Serving Institution indicate that this number will only continue to grow with in the next decade. This is a project initiated by Chancellor Mark Mone, and lead by the interim director of the Roberto Hernandez Center, Alberto Maldonado.

1970s: Jesus Salas

The fall semester of 1970 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee seemed normal to the 25,000 students who had begun the semester. However, for the 14 Latino students enrolled in the university, most of whom were from Central and South America, it would become a life-changing semester. Soon the Latino students began to talk among one another, and they began to realize the discrimination that the Latino community of over 30,000 in Milwaukee was facing in the educational system.

“Large community meetings began to take place in the near South side regarding the lack of participation of the Latino students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,” said UWM alum and former UW-System regent Jesus Salas.

Today, there are 2,224 Hispanic students enrolled at UW-Milwaukee, making up 9 percent of the student body.

Chancellor Mark Mone has noted this spike of Hispanic enrollment, so during October of 2016, now known as the National Hispanic Heritage Month, he revealed his plan to make UW-Milwaukee the first Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) in the state of Wisconsin, within a period of 10 years. And although this objective seems achievable, there are multiple challenges to Hispanic enrollment such as high tuition and financial aid, lack of outreach and recruitment, as well as ramifications of the 2016 election.

Still, one of UWM’s most prominent Hispanic leaders finds hope, as he looks to the past as a source of inspiration.

“The truth is that this is a movement that began 40 years ago,” said Roberto Hernandez Center interim director Alberto Maldonado, “when a group of students decided to sit-in in the office of Chancellor Johannes Martin Klotsche, demanding better resources and help for the Hispanic students of UWM.”

Students begin to organize

Late in the 20th century, the Latino students of UW-Milwaukee were facing many barriers which were blocking their path to higher education. Not only did they face segregation due to the color of their skin, cultural differences and language gaps; the students back in 1970 had a very limited number of professional and educational role models.

Students at UWM such as Jesus Salas, Ernesto Chacon, and Roberto Hernandez decided that enough was enough, as they began to organize a movement to demand better educational resources for Latinos.

Video: Armando Manriquez

“We had presented a proposal in the summer to Richard Davis, the dean of the school of education,” said Salas. “Although he was very sympathetic towards our demands, he felt that the school of education could not meet all of the demands that were being made by the community. So, he referred us to the chancellor.”

After an extensive period of protests, sit-ins and negotiations, the Council for Education of Latin Americans (CELA) managed to create an agreement with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. October 23, 1970, would be the date that would change the campus of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. On this date, an office was opened on campus, and an outreach center was placed in the Southside of town, called the Spanish Speaking Outreach Institute (SSOI). Both were established in order to serve the Hispanic student community of Milwaukee. After the creation of the SSOI in 1970, there was a 300% increase of enrollment from 1970-1973. By 1975 there were a total of 351 Hispanic students enrolled in the university.

These resources are still available today, now known as the Roberto Hernandez Center (RHC), which has become the prime resource facility for Hispanic and Latinx students on campus.

Author's note: Latinx is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina and even Latin@. The word “Latinx” (pronounced “La-teen-ex”) has been used more and more lately. Yes, Latinx is, in fact, a word — one many people identify with for various reasons.

“My first contact was not necessarily admissions but the RHC,” said 24-year-old UWM student Cinthia Tellez. “I first met with an advisor at the RHC, and that’s how I came to know the services and opportunities are offered here for me. So, I think that without the RHC, I wouldn’t have made that connection with the university, that would embody what I was hoping to get out of my education.”

Modern challenges faced by Hispanic students: financial aid

Cinthia was brought into the United States by her Mother and younger brother who, like many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., were in search for a better life for their families. They come in the hopes of finding better education and employment, a better roof over their heads, as well as escaping from the crime and corruption which can be seen in multiple communities of their native towns and cities.

According to a study by UWM’s Center of Economic Development, Latino Milwaukee currently contains a higher proportion of native-born citizens, with almost 73%. However, 55.4% of Milwaukee County’s foreign-born Latino population is estimated to be unauthorized immigrants.

“Transferring to this university was something really instrumental for me to be able to graduate,” said Tellez. “However, I didn’t know my education was going to cost me so much, especially because I don’t qualify for financial assistance. Knowing how to go about my finances to pay for school was something I had to learn throughout the years, sometimes I would make enough for 1 or two classes, sometimes I had to be out of school for full semesters to attend full time next semester.”

Unfortunately for Cinthia, and for most of the undocumented immigrant student populations in the U.S., there are very limited financial resources available for them.

This is an experience that is chillingly similar to that of Amaerani Torres, who is another example of a UWM undocumented student who has to face the challenges that lack of financial aid brings to their educational, as well as personal lives.

“It’s like I’m carrying a huge financial burden on my back,” said UWM student, Amaerani Torres, who is also an undocumented student immigrant.

“At one point, I’ve had to work at least three jobs,” Torres added. “Throughout college I’ve only been a part time student, because I can’t afford the whole tuition.”

In Wisconsin, children who are born outside of the U.S. and are not citizens or legal residents, are at least guaranteed public education through high school. However, it is when they begin to pursue a college education, that they face strong legal and financial barriers.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, undocumented immigrants who wish to study on campus may do so by paying out of state tuition which is a total of $8, 909 per semester. Thus, for a four-year bachelor’s degree at the UW-Milwaukee, a student like Amaerani would have to pay a total of $71,278.

Currently, only 18 states including California, Texas, Oregon, and Maryland allow teens without legal status to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, provided they meet certain requirements.

“I don’t think there are enough resources for undocumented students available on campus,” said Torres. “If they would create some type of resource, such as a scholarship fund for undocumented students, it would be awesome, because then more people could come.”

This is something that Alberto Maldonado and the committee acknowledge, and say they are working with departments on campus such as the office of development and the department of financial aid, to continue the development of scholarships for all Latinx students.

“There are multiple possibilities that we’re looking into,” said Maldonado. “We’re working closely with different organizations, such as the Mexican consulate of Milwaukee in order to create scholarship opportunities for all Latino students, both documented and undocumented.”

Additionally, Maldonado cited a plan to continue Dr. Figueroa’s initiative for PALM, which was established as a Latino Student Fund, and a unique source of emergency funding for currently enrolled Latino students that are facing unexpected expenses, which can affect their pursuit of an undergraduate degree.

HSI designation and its benefits

If UW-Milwaukee earns the HSI designation, it would be eligible for special federal funding grants to support student recruitment and retention, faculty development, community outreach and more.

In order for UW-Milwaukee to obtain this designation, which is held by over 435 universities nationwide, UWM would need to increase its Hispanic student enrollment by 16%. To be considered an HIS university, the Hispanic population must make up 25% of the total undergraduate enrollment in the institution.

“Our top priority is student success,” said UWM chancellor Mark Mone in a news release. “Our efforts will benefit all students through a learning environment that prepares them for today’s world.”

On November 16, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the award of more than “$104 million to Minority Serving Institutions,” of which $92 million in new grants we made available in STEM Grants solely for the Hispanic Serving-Institutions of the country.

University of Illinois-Chicago is UWM’s closest HSI neighbor, with a total Hispanic enrollment of 26.5% out of their 15,967 undergraduate students enrolled, and they were awarded a total of $280,114 for the 2016 year.

Although Chancellor Mone says the main objective is to “address the upcoming demographic changes” in our community, one must acknowledge that $280,000 represents progress, taking into account the $41 million that the university plans to cut out of the budget by 2019, due to a $38 million deficit that the campus faces.

These large budget cuts force the institution to cut corners in every sector, leaving them with various challenges, and only a few weapons that they can use to combat them with. Recruitment and enrollment, have become essential in keeping UW-Milwaukee working as best as possible.

“Enrollment has become the centerpiece of this movement,” said Maldonado. “Since we currently only receive about 20% from state funding, we need enrollment money in order to keep functioning as an institution.”

Leading the Project

To reach the objective within the time frame proposed by Chancellor Mone, UWM has created the “Chancellor’s Committee for Hispanic Serving Initiatives (CCHSI).” Chancellor Mone assigned the interim director of the Roberto Hernandez Center, Alberto Maldonado, to lead this committee and project.

The committee is made up by various branches of the university, including the chancellor, provost, and the two vice chancellors which are the core of the administration on campus, and according to Maldonado they are also “the main architects that are leading the project.” Right beneath them there is the working team, which is comprised of three students, academic staff, University staff, faculty and administrators.

Amongst the faculty co-advisors is professor, Michelle Lopez Rios, a UWM professor and head of acting in the Peck School of the Arts.

Rios said that the chancellor had contacted them a couple months ago, in order to discuss the numbers of Latinx students in UWM and Wisconsin.

“With all the budget cuts that have been taking place, it’s hard to have a lot of time for something that’s so important,” said Rios. “We decided that perhaps co-faculty advisors would allow us to, appropriately commit time to this, but also take care of our duties such as teaching and research.”

Prior to becoming the interim director of the RHC, Alberto Maldonado was serving as the Assistant Director for Undergraduate & Transfer Recruitment and Community Relations, with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

“Alberto was perfect for the job,” said Rios as she described his experience with recruitment.

Although Maldonado may the overseer of the HSI project, the committee structure is much more elaborate than it appears. It includes a number of staff and students, it will allow room for better representation throughout the entire campus.

“It was also done like this because this isn’t Alberto Maldonado’s project, this is a campus lead project,” said Maldonado.

He then added that in the near future the CCHSI plans to create a “Community advisory board,” in order to involve key members of the community, and allow them to participate, in order to develop a plan of how they can achieve the HSI goal. With addition to be able to develop plans of how the community will support the students with scholarships, internships, jobs, and all of the things that would make this endeavor successful from beginning to end.

“I’m happy that the structure is how it is, and that the chancellor has made a commitment to be an active participant in the process,” Maldonado added.

For the most part, most the community members are very enthusiastic about this initiative. They have faith, that if placed in the proper hands, this project will be successful. Only a hand full of the Latino community members feel a bit pessimistic about the endeavor. Most of which expressed the same worries, primarily with financial aid, which was the main concern of them all.

UW-Milwaukee Latino Future

This all sounds great on paper, and in speeches, however, is this idea truly conceivable?

According to the 2014 U.S. Census, approximately 598,000 people live in the city of Milwaukee that are Hispanic or Latino. It was in the last decade, between 1990 – 2014, where we saw an explosion of population take place in the Latino community of Milwaukee.

During these two decades, the Latino population of Milwaukee increased by 213%, which is the “highest growth rate among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas,” this according to the study by UWM’s Center for Economic Development (CED).

Over 90 percent of the net population growth in metro Milwaukee are due to the Latino populations expansion. They also account for the entire net population growth in the city of Milwaukee since 2000. In fact, if it wasn’t for the surge of Latinos on Milwaukee over the time period stated, the city’s population would have declined by over 16 percent between 1990 and 2014.

“Achieving HSI status is critically important to addressing the upcoming demographic changes of an increasingly diverse student population,” said Chancellor Mone in his news release.

According to the study by the CED, Latinos in Milwaukee currently still “lag significantly, behind white non-Hispanic population.” This is due to the fact that compared to the 95% of the white community, and the 80% of the African American community; less than two thirds of Latinos in Milwaukee over the age of 25 have a college degree.

Nonetheless, it is with the younger generations where Latinos show growing numbers.

The same study shows that, in less than a decade, the “total non-Hispanic enrollment in metro Milwaukee schools declined by 32,000, while Latino enrollment grew by almost 22,000.”

Additionally, “the Latino share of total K-12 enrollments in the city of Milwaukee grew from 8.0 to 25.3 percent; in the Milwaukee County suburbs, the Latino percentage grew from 1.8 to 13.6 percent; and in the WOW counties, the Latino share grew from 1.4 to 7.3 percent.”

Therefore, a vision of UW-Milwaukee as a Hispanic Serving Institution, is not impossible.

“There isn’t really a reason why not to do this,” said Maldonado. “There isn’t really anything at stake here. Everything that we’ll do, whether it’s at a small scale or large scale it’s all going to be beneficial in increasing the Hispanic enrollment. In reality, any way you look at it it’s a good thing, so even if we grow to a 14%, 16% or 30% and higher, it’s all a plus for the Latino community of our city.”