Standing in one of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s (HHF) National Youth Awardee Ryan Solis’ crowded trophy and award room, amptly the largest and first room in his home in El Paso, Texas, it was not difficult for me to feel hopeful for a future filled with brown excellence in academia.
I was in Ryan’s home on the journey to the National Youth Awards ceremony taking place in D.C. this year. HHF’s National Youth Awards ceremony is an annual celebration of only the most outstanding Hispanic youth in America. Every year the selected recipients congregate from across the country to share their stories, but this year, HHF wanted to take a closer look at the student’s everyday lives.
Thusly, I travelled with the Foundation to El Paso, Texas. A border town with perpetual transit in and out by people on both sides of the border, El Paso ranks consistently as among the safest cities in America. This fun fact, proudly shared with me by Ryan, rips through the violent criminal immigrant narrative and paints a very different picture of life on the border.
Ryan Solis, academic titan and aspiring public servant, surmounted great challenges in his endeavors to become a first generation college student. Standing out from thousands of applicants on the regional level and the national level, Ryan credited his success to someone very monumental in his life. Raised by a single mom in very humble circumstances, Ryan’s love and gratitude for his mom was palpable as we shared an intimate conversation about their journey together. Unbeknownst to Ryan’s mom, Cynthia Solis, he submitted her to receive the National Parent Award, and we were there to capture their unique bond and connection in hopes of not only celebrating their strides together but also inspiring families across our communities. Together, they persisted through every hurdle life brought their way with unwavering focus. The next hurdle? Waiting to see which college acceptance letter would pour in first.
Ryan is not alone in breaking through the statistics as a Hispanic student entering higher education. Almost 40% of Hispanic Americans ages 25 and older had college experience in 2015. A significant spike from 2000, when only 10% of Hispanic Americans 25 and older had college experience. Hope.
It’s difficult to observe these positive trends, however, without some trepidations. A history of disconnect looms over many first generation college students, making the struggle to rise, steep. This history is exactly what makes first generation college students an admirable triumph. When analyzing the alchemy of guidance, drive, resources, and will that came together for young adults like Ryan, it’s important to realize that not every young adult lives in the same reality. Their reality can look like a bad family history of student debt, substance abuse by them or a family member, not qualifying for the necessary financial aid, or in many cases, needing to work to support their family. 65% of working Hispanic Americans cite this very same duty as a reason for not pursuing higher education, a staggering statistic when compared to 38% in Caucasian Americans. We must ask, why is that? I firmly believe it is an illusion to believe everyone is running the same race, with the same obstacles and the same hurdles. It is imperative to acknowledge each community’s reality and subsequently work towards the right solutions.
This way, perseveraremos. In 2014, 35% of Hispanic Americans 18 to 24 were enrolled in a two or four year college, up from 22% in 1993 – a 13% increase – equating in 2.3 million Hispanic College students in 2014. ¡Azúcar!
Representation in colleges and universities breaks the higher education fourth wall for underrepresented communities and creates access. Those trail-blazing the journey through higher education go back to their communities with needed guidance, knowledge of resources, and they water the sapling of drive in those who’ll walk the halls of college and universities after them. As more first generation college students become first generation college graduates, the ripples of their trajectory foster more college hopefuls, inspiring them to achieve and aspire to greater heights, giving them a solid face and connection to the college experience.
More representation in institutions of higher learning is key towards a positive future for all Americans. As our economy and job market continue to evolve, so must our workforce adapt. We need high skilled, passionate, diverse professionals with different life experiences and from different generations to come together. New perspectives inspire innovation, that is the greatest constant in American industry.
“With more than a million current STEM jobs unfilled and millions more projected to be unfilled over the next five years, it’s critical to expose, engage and support underserved communities to STEM careers,” shares Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. “A good place to start is the fastest-growing and youngest segment of our population, Latinos.”
As the Ryan’s of the world embark on their journey through higher education, they leave the door of opportunity open behind them. They serve as shining beacons, lighting the way on the journey for knowledge, economic mobility, and self fulfillment and realization.