NIU conference to address Latino issues

By Linda Luk

NIU will host a conference at its Naperville campus to address issues pertaining to Latinos in higher education.

On Nov. 9, some of the nation’s brightest minds will meet at the first-of-its-kind conference, “Shaping Education Policy for Latinos in Illinois.”

“It’s not enough for us to say that the number of Latino students entering and graduating from college is too low,” said Manuel Sanchez, chair of the Board of Trustees. “We have to ask, why?”

According to Michael Gonzales, director of the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, the conference will address a wide variety of issues and problems that confront Latino students.

“The conference will bring together people who have experience in higher education who work together with students and with prominent people who have the influence and ability to change policy not only in high education,” Gonzales said.

Some of the conference speakers will include Gery Chico, Chicago Board of Education President, Illinois Senator Miguel del Valle, Hazel Loucks, deputy governor for education and work force in Illinois and Keith Sanders, executive director of the Illinois Board in higher education.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez will be the keynote speaker.

The conference will consist of a variety of workshops that will address affirmative action, preparing Latinos for higher education in high school, standardized testing and some of the obstacles Latino students face in college.

“The troubling picture of Hispanic representation and achievement in American colleges and universities is an issue that the higher education community can no longer ignore,” NIU President John Peters said. “In Illinois, I am proud to say that my institution, Northern Illinois University, is taking the lead in an effort to foster discussion and influence policies to change the face of the Latino college experience.”

According to Gonzales, NIU has experienced a dramatic increase not only in the Latino student population on campus, but also in the area, according to the results of Census 2000. It is projected that the Latino student population may become the number one minority group on campus. However, dropout rates for Latino students are higher compared to other minority groups, but there has been improvement at the retention rate.

“NIU is addressing these issues,” Gonzales said. “University Resources for Latinos and Center for Latinos and Latin-American Studies both work closely with Latino students. We have programs to improve retention rate. Latino students themselves have done a great job to create a better environment with nearly 20 student organizations.”

The idea for the conference was Sanchez’s, an alum of NIU and also the first Latino to head an Illinois public university governing board when he chaired NIU’s Board of Trustees.

“As the first Hispanic in Illinois to head a public university governing board, I feel a special responsibility to highlight Latino education concerns,” Sanchez said.

The conference has been in the works since early summer and will be held at the Naperville campus because of its central location.

“I think [the conference] is for the students, teachers at all levels,” Gonzales said. “It’s for administrators, principals, especially people in the public sector and also for people in the legal profession who are interested in affirmative action issues.”

The conference is funded by the university and students are also encouraged to attend the conference. Various resources including the University Resources for Latinos and Center for Latino and Latin-American Students are sponsoring students to attend. According to Gonzales, students should attend because there will be student presenters. Gonzales believes that solutions can’t be found without listening to students.

SA Vice President Jamie Garcia will sit on a panel to provide student perspectives.

“I think [the conference] was needed,” Garcia said. “I am glad that Northern stepped up to the responsibility. I just hope it’ll continue next year. We are starting something new that can be done every year.”

Garcia hopes to see the conference provide young Latino students with building blocks that will guide them on what to do and what steps to take pertaining to higher education.

“I hope that people see that there is a need to educate the young Latinos,” Garcia said.

As a Latino student, Garcia has gone through the typical obstacles that many minority students go through, including financial aid, being the first generation and going away to school for the first time.

“At a time in our nation’s history when the Hispanic population is growing faster than that of any other ethnic group, we need to look for new ways to help our Latino group, we need to look for new ways to help our Latino youth to overcome obstacles to higher-education achievement,” Sanchez said.