June 30, 2000


From Campesinos to Doctorates

by Raoul Lowery Contreras

San Diego State University ranks third in the entire country in the number of master's degrees awarded to Hispanics. It ranked number six in the country in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to Hispanics and number 37 in the country in the number of doctorates awarded to Hispanics. In fact, there are 400 doctoral candidates this year. Good job, alma mater!

These numbers come from the May issue of the national magazine Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education and from the school's campus newspaper, The Daily Aztec. These numbers reflect a dedication by two different campus leaders, the current President, Dr. Stephen Weber, and his predecessor, Dr. Thomas Day.

Considering that the day I stepped on campus in September of 1958, there were fewer than 50 Hispanic students on campus, one is shocked to see that 20% of State's bachelor degrees awarded in 1998-99 were to Hispanics, as were 12% of master's degrees.

What is San Diego State University doing right? Well, their 3rd ranking in the award of master's degrees makes them the only California State University in the top ten nationally. It is ranked number six in awarding bachelor's degrees, making it the highest ranked California State University campus. Following SDSU, Cal-State Los Angeles (7), Cal-State Fullerton (9), and Cal-State Northridge (10). Whatever San Diego State University is doing, it is doing right.

First, comes the desire of the faculty and staff to reach these kinds of numbers. President Stephen Weber says that when he explored how to diversify the student body, the desire to broaden San Diego State's diversity came "from the bottom up." Secondly, comes an acceptance attitude, at the very least, from the system administrators of the California State University and its politically appointed Board of Trustees. Diversity, you see, is important when the system's student body is 52% "minority." In fact, Dr. Weber says that only 45% of San Diego State's student body is Caucasian.

Then comes real, substantial outreach to high school Hispanics starting early. For example, San Diego State and the Sweetwater Union High School District, a district that is overwhelmingly Hispanic and stretches from the City of San Diego to the Mexican border, have signed an agreement that San Diego State guarantees admission for qualified Sweetwater graduates. Moreover, Dr. Weber states that "State and the high schools are working together on curriculum changes as early as the 7th grade to assure students that they can qualify for any college."

Some would say "No big deal." But, space is very limited at San Diego State, a campus with as many students as UCLA. The campus has grown exponentially since I raced from class to coffee to class those many years ago. I recall taking the inaugural class of "Mexican Government and Politics" with 12 other students. The last I heard, the class was in several sections with hundreds of students. The growth will continue.

The California State University system is projecting that by 2010 another 714,000 students will apply for admission to the 20-campus State University, thus creating more pressure on an already packed SDSU. On top of those numbers, the Cal-State system has decided to use geography as an element of admission. Locals will have priority. With almost 25% of San Diego County being Hispanic, the current 20% of the student body being Hispanic is expected to increase as early as this Fall by 2 or 3%.

What's interesting is that Hispanic collegiate numbers are increasing in many parts of the country. Mexican Americans from Southern California attend Harvard, Northwestern and universities all over the country.

Hispanic students are making their way through public schools with little help. For example, the other day I attended the graduation of a nephew from an Orange County (CA) high school. Not a single school administrator or counselor listed in the program was Hispanic, despite more than a quarter of the graduating class being Hispanic. Despite this lack of Hispanic presence, several of the many valedictorians were Hispanic.

In his book ETHNIC AMERICA (Basic Books, 1981) Dr. Thomas Sowell happily reported that the Hispanic population of the US had made tremendous educational strides. For example, he writes that in 1950 only 8% of Mexican Americans graduated from high school, a percentage that almost doubled by 1960 to 13%. In 1970 the number doubled again to 29%.

Today, the graduation rate has more than doubled to 63% this year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The numbers from San Diego State University and the entire California State University system, with its 52% minority student body, reflect the growing educational level of the Hispanic community, particularly among Mexican Americans.

From the rural Mexican cultures of the 1920s to modern urban America today is a very long journey in human terms. Most Mexican Americans have come a long way on that journey."

Thanks, I might add, to many, among which is San Diego State and its desire and efforts to educate the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States.

Raoul's controversial radio talk show is on Sundays at 11:30 A.M. on San Diego's KCBQ-1170AM.

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