GARY — A dollar and a slice of pizza — that was Mike Andrade's daily earnings passing out flyers for a local pizza parlor as an 11-year-old.
Growing up a first-generation Mexican American in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, state Rep. Mike Andrade, D-Munster, was taught the value of hard work at a young age. His father always held two to three jobs, largely so he could pay the many legal fees that piled up as he obtained citizenship.
"There was a push to work hard, to live the American dream, to stay out of poverty," Andrade recalled. "There wasn’t a push for us to go to school."
Back in Mexico, many of his relatives left school early to farm. Even when Hispanic and Latino families immigrate to the U.S., higher education can seem out of reach because of language barriers and financial hurdles, Andrade explained.
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During a Wednesday night National Hispanic Heritage Month town hall held at Indiana University Northwest, Andrade and IUN Chancellor Ken Iwama discussed how institutions can support Hispanic and Latino students. In September 2020, IUN received a "Hispanic-Serving Institution" designation from the U.S. Department of Education, becoming the first public, comprehensive institution of higher learning in the state with the certification.
Schools can apply for HSI designation if they have an enrollment of undergraduate, full-time equivalent students that is at least 25% Hispanic. IUN's student population is 27% Hispanic/Latino, 46.6% white, 18.3% African American, 3.6% two or more races and 3% Asian American.
“La diversidad valí mucho. Diversity is very valuable," community activist and radio personality Eve Gomez told the crowd as she moderated the town hall.
Hispanic/Latino students are the fastest growing population in U.S. higher education.
Data from Excelencia in Education show there are 559 schools with HSI designations in the country, making up just 18% of all institutions of higher education. Despite the low percentage, HSIs enroll 66% of all Hispanic/Latino undergraduate students.
The HSI designation has made IUN eligible for more funding opportunities. In October 2021, the school received a $5 million grant from DOE to enhance opportunities for Hispanic and Latino students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, also known as STEM. The money is being used to establish STEM-specific advising and student employment opportunities, new curriculum focused on scientific research, stronger partnerships with local high schools and the creation of a new STEM Resource Center that will serve both IUN and the Lake County campus of Ivy Tech.
Iwama said the partnership will help Hispanic and Latino students completing two-year degrees at Ivy Tech continue their education at IUN. A report from the Aspen Institute of College Excellence Program found community college students who transfer to HSIs have a 6% higher graduation rate than the national average.
Increasing enrollment and graduation rates means working with students and families to navigate potential issues, Iwama explained. Gomez, who was born in Mexico and moved to Gary at a young age, said her parents could not help her navigate the college application process because of the language barrier. She said not speaking English can make families feel like "they don't have a voice."
In 2019 IUN launched iun.edu/espanol, a Spanish webpage explaining the universities' programs. More and more of IUN's marketing materials are being translated. There is a full-time Spanish-speaking admissions counselor, and during the fall open house, there will be a session conducted in Spanish as well as one conducted in English.
Documentation status can also be a huge barrier for Hispanic and Latino students. According to the American Immigration Council, an estimated 100,000 Indiana residents were undocumented in 2016.
Students who are undocumented have issues accessing financial aid and often live in constant fear of deportation, Andrade said.
He and state Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago have been working on a bill that would create a driving record card for undocumented Indiana residents. The card would let undocumented residents drive legally and insured, though it would not work as a voter ID.
Andrade said he is also working on legislation that would give in-state tuition reimbursements to undocumented students. The bill got a hearing last session but did not pass. Andrade said he plans on pushing the bill again this session.
"Spending three months in a train, half of the people on the train die because they have no water, ... and when they finally get to their destination, they're abused," Andrade said about how the undocumented community faces extreme hardships just to make it to the U.S.
"They go through all of those struggles, and they are still strong enough to say, ‘I want a better life for me and my family,'" Andrade said. "The least we can do is embrace them and say, ‘Welcome.’”