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Si quieres ser un Badger… Latinx students struggle to fit in at UW

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Selina Armenta, a UW-Madison senior from Madison, said if it weren't for the student-run cultural organizations for Latinx students, "I probably wouldn’t have spent much time there, I wouldn’t have felt like there was a place for me at UW."

Note: In place of the traditional Latino and Latina, the author of this story used Latinx, a gender-neutral alternative that is seeing increasing use.

Despite growing up in Madison, Selina Armenta felt culture shock when she first set foot on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus as a freshman.

“I felt a little intimidated and I felt pressured to perform higher than normal because I felt like sometimes I needed to prove that I was not what people were stereotyping me as,” Armenta said. “Freshman year I often felt like I had to prove myself in my classes for both my peers and professors.”

Armenta, now a senior majoring in Legal Studies, is one of over 2,000 Latinx students enrolled at UW-Madison. She often found herself to be the only person of color in a 200-seat classrooms her freshman year, a new experience for her. Armenta comes from a diverse neighborhood, had a diverse group of friends and had more people of color in her Madison LaFollette High School classrooms.

Armenta also found residence hall life to be different. She said the campus was like a small town in a city she was already familiar with. She roomed with another Latina and said they were the only two people of color on their floor.

Despite UW-Madison’s efforts to recruit Latinx students and create an inclusive campus, some believe those efforts fall short and that administrators should do more to improve their experience. Despite being one of the largest groups of students of color on campus, Latinx students do not have a space to call their own or an academic department that teaches about their cultural background. 

Latinx students by the numbers 

Latinx students are the second-largest minority group at UW-Madison after Asian-Americans, making up 4.75 percent of the student population. Latinx faculty and staff are also the second-largest minority at 4.32 percent. Those numbers have slowly increased over the last 10 years.

This past spring, UW-Madison alum Arturo Tito Diaz, organization development specialist at the Multicultural Student Center on campus, helped conduct a survey of 150 Latinx students.

When asked what the main issues on campus were, 20 percent pointed to a lack of Latinx community and 15 percent to lack of representation among faculty and staff. When asked if they feel the university provides support and resources to foster the Latinx identity, 84 percent responded no.

Seventy-two percent said there was no adequate curriculum geared toward the Latinx identity. When students were asked where they felt most supported, popular answers were  Affiliated Academic Program (programs offering academic support) and the Chican@ & Latin@ Studies (CLS) certificate program.

When asked why they continue to enroll at UW-Madison, one student said: “Mostly for my family. Their struggle has inspired me to continue to succeed regardless of my obstacles here at UW.” Another said: “I believe in the importance of persisting in spaces in which I feel our community isn’t represented so that we may continue to move forward.” 

University efforts for a welcoming campus

UW-Madison’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement was established in 2010 “to create a diverse, inclusive and excellent learning and work environment for all students, faculty, staff, alumni.”

Division programs include scholarship pipelines like POSSE, which offers  full-tuition scholarships for four years to public high school students with “extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes,”  and PEOPLE, a pre-college pipeline program for low-income students of color. Latinx students often take part of these programs.

The division also collaborates with organizations for the Latino Youth Summit, a two-day pre-college initiative to expose middle school Latinx students from the Madison Metropolitan School District to the university and get them thinking about being a Badger.

In an effort to get a picture of the campus climate for students, especially those of “different backgrounds and identities,” UW-Madison conducted a campus-wide survey,  “Speak Up,” last fall. According to the university’s website, the results will help guide initiatives to make the university a safer, welcoming, and productive place for all students.


Arturo Tito Diaz, a UW-Madison alum who works for the Multicultural Student Center today, enrolled in the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies program where he found mentors.

Patrick Sims, UW-Madison vice provost and chief diversity officer, said the division works with the university’s ethnic studies departments to develop close relationships and address needs of minority student communities.

Sims said the division is working with the CLS program to more intentionally reach out to Latinx students. He has also developed a partnership with graduate programs to hold mixers focused on particular cultural groups, which are open to everyone to attend.

Sims said he recognizes that change doesn’t come easy or quickly.

 “I think the biggest challenge from my vantage point is acknowledging that this work is slow, it's incremental and people who help nudge and move agendas along are rarely around to see the fruits of their labors,” Sims said.

Sims said he wants people to know that all of the university’s communities are important and he is looking for more ways to reach out and include minority groups.

“The few programs I mentioned, in my mind, those are just tips of the iceberg in terms of what's possible,” Sims said. 

Latinxs in predominantly white institutions

Feeling isolated and uncomfortable as a Latinx attending a predominantly white institution is not unique to UW-Madison. There are some who have identified and studied trends and issues at similar campuses.

Carla Gonzalez is a lecturer for UW-Madison’s CLS program. Her research interests include the history of educational experiences among Midwestern Latinxs in K-12 and higher educational settings.

Gonzalez said students who are the first in their families to attend college — first generation students — have different experiences than those who can turn to family members with college experience for guidance and advice.

Drawing from her personal experience, Gonzalez said resources are often available for students at these institutions, but they’re not often visible.

“Most schools try to do the best that they know how to do, but oftentimes programming is not really created by Latinos or people of color,” Gonzalez said. “It's created by people who study it and think they know what’s needed. I think there’s always more work to be done, but there are resources.”

Gonzalez said it’s often left to students to be proactive in making connections on campus, but that can be difficult for first generation students. She said institutions should build systems to help this process.

Even though Gonzalez is a fourth generation Mexican-American, she said she still relates to the feeling of loneliness in a predominately white institution.

“Maybe I've just learned how to get used to it because that's what I’ve known,” Gonzalez said. “I kind of suppress it but for (first generation students) it's very raw because they're not used to it.”

In order to make campus feel more inviting to students of color, Gonzalez said the university needs to create a space where they feel welcomed and can create a sense of community.

Latinx population on campus has grown, but slowly

“I think if students could see the community, even if it's a small one and that it's being supported, I think that would attract student recruitment,” Gonzalez said.

Student efforts to make a welcoming campus

The Latinx student community at UW-Madison was built mainly through student-led initiatives rather than administrative, according to some.

There are about 19 Latinx student organizations listed on the UW-Madison website, including seven Greek organizations and five that are career-specific.

Armenta said her success on campus is a result of the support she received from the community she found in those types of groups.

“A lot of what I see in terms of support and resources is coming from student organizations or the CLS program,” Armenta said. “If it weren't for those organizations I wouldn’t have met my roommate, so I probably wouldn’t have decided to live on campus.

“Without my scholarship program, I probably wouldn’t have gone to UW-Madison. My family wouldn’t have been able to afford it. If the other orgs weren't around, I probably wouldn’t have spent much time there, I wouldn’t have felt like there was a place for me at UW.”

Diaz said when he was a student, he didn’t notice any programming generated by the university directed at the Latinx community.

“A lot of the times it was the student organizations that were bringing people in or providing that programing,” he said. “The only department that I would say that was doing those sort of things was the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.”

Two weeks into her freshman year, Armenta learned about Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán (MEChA), through a student organizations fair and from peers in the PEOPLE program she is part of.

Armenta also joined Kappa Delta Chi, a multicultural sorority, during second semester of her freshman year. She found her sorority to be a second family on campus and she was able to relate to other members who were also first-generation college students and Latinas.

During her sophomore year, Armenta helped co-found the DREAMERS of UW-Madison, a student led organization that serves as support group for undocumented students.

“I was able to find within the Latino community people whom I had even more things in common with,” Armenta said. “People who immigrated here, people who were undocumented and people whose families were immigrants.”

As a third-generation Mexican-American student, Diaz’s experience as a freshman was slightly different. He was raised in Racine, didn’t speak Spanish and he was used to being in predominantly white spaces. But he was wowed when he found himself in groups of other Latinx students on campus.

“It was like excitement, with also being overwhelmed being in a room full of people that have similar experiences to mine,” Diaz said.

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UW-Madison political science professor Benjamin Marquez is the director of the Chican@ and Latin@ Studies program. “The only reason we exist is because we refuse to let the program die.”

Due to those experiences and a lack of exposure to the Latinx culture in his youth, Diaz decided to enroll in the CLS certificate program to learn more about his cultural background.

“Throughout my educational system we never talked about people who looked like me or who had some of the same cultural shared experiences,” Diaz said. “So I made sure I sought that out.”

Although the options were limited, Diaz was able to find mentors among Latinx faculty and staff involved in the CLS program. And he quickly became very involved on campus, joining organizations like a Latino fraternity and the Associated Students of Madison student council, where he made a point to bring a multicultural perspective. 

A department of their own

Since CLS is only a certificate program, students are not able to major in this area of study and classes are limited.

Like Diaz, Armenta also decided to take part in the CLS certificate program after taking an introductory class where she learned about her cultural history. She said CLS played a big role in her co-founding the DREAMERS organization. The program also made her feel part of campus, as well as providing support through her advisor, Rachelle Eilers, and other faculty and staff in the program.

Armenta also attended the program’s weekly lunches, which featured guest speakers who provide students with information about the day-to-day college experience, like adding and dropping classes and and accessing financial aid.

Since CLS is only a certificate program and not an  academic department, courses are crosslisted with and mostly taught by faculty from a varieyt of departments. Faculty are not able to dedicate their work solely to CLS and there are no tenure opportunities. Lecturers, who teach the introductory courses, tend to be exclusive to the program.

“We can't even major in our own field or history because of funding,” Diaz said.

According to university archives, there have been efforts to expand the certificate program in the past. In 1997, three MEChA students met with the dean of the College of Letters and Sciences to express concerns about faculty involvement and the number of courses in Chicano Studies. In 2000, there was a demonstration at South Hall pushing for a Chicana/o Studies a department. In 2002, a document was submitted to the dean advocating expansion of the program.

According to Benjamin Marquez, a political science professor and director of CLS, the arguments against expanding into a full department are largely about resources.

“We are a tiny program because we don't have the resources to expand,” Marquez said. “It’s not that we don’t know how to do it. We know exactly how to hire faculty and how to build a program. We are quite capable of doing that, but the administration has actually cut back.”

Marquez said there are fewer faculty members with teaching appointments in CLS now compared to 26 years ago, when he first started there. He said the program is the smallest of the university’s ethnic studies programs and if the program were to be eliminated, it would make a very minor difference in the overall university budget.

“The only reason we exist is because we refuse to let the program die,” Marquez said.

Gonzalez said that based on her experiences, ethnic studies are often targeted when there are budget cuts.

“In a perfect world if those programs could be fully funded, I think you would see a significant difference in retention and in making (students) feel welcomed,” Gonzalez said. “If you’re thinking about diversity and the importance of diversity and your mission is to create these environments and then you're cutting funding from programs that are helping, those things are not aligned.”

Latinx cultural center for unity

According to Diaz, many Latinx students believe having a dedicated space to gather will help create the community and unity they want. He acknowledged it’s hard to build cohesion among the community, due to its own diversity and differing goals of Latinx organizations.

Armenta said it would be helpful to have a space along the lines of the new Black Cultural Center where Latinx students can gather. Although CLS has a library and study space in Ingraham Hall, it is not very accessible because of early closing hours and its location right in the middle of campus.

“It's also sad to say that we need the students to demand it,” Diaz said. “I think to be a proactive place, we need to meet that demand before it's on our doorstep saying we need these services, because then you scramble for something.”

Overall, Armenta — who plans to go to law school and pursue a career as an immigration attorney after graduating — said her experience at UW Madison has been good, mostly because of the community she was able to build through her extracurricular involvement. She was able to feel more comfortable after interacting with more students of color.

“If it wasn't for that, it would have been totally different,” she said. 

Rosario Dominguez has interned at the Cap Times this summer as part of the David and Elliott Maraniss Scholarship. She grew up in Chicago and is a graduate student in the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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