The Latino Gap: Moms & Daughters Learn Keys To College Success
January 25, 2012

The Latino Education Gap

Hispanic students perform poorly on state tests and have lower graduation rates than Whites and Asians. In this series, the Fronteras Desk explores the Latino education achievement gap and finds some educators with innovative solutions.

PHOENIX -- Denica Gonzalez and her mother Reina have a strong relationship. They sing in the church choir, they go shopping together, and they spend time in Denica’s room. They talk about school, friends, music, and the future of the 18-year-old high school senior from Mesa, Arizona.

One more thing she and her mother participate in together is the Hispanic Mother Daughter Program at Arizona State University (ASU).

“It teaches you how you can prepare yourself for college, with your résumés, how to do it,” Denica said.

The Hispanic Mother Daughter Program started in 1984. It’s one of three programs in the Southwest. The other two are at the University of Texas-El Paso and in Austin. The program brings girls in as early as 8th grade and it’s competitive. Hundreds apply, but at ASU, only 140 are accepted.

“Because the program has been around for a long time, people are very familiar with it,” said Anita Tarango, who oversees the ASU program. “And they know our success and the impact that the program has made in many families.”

The students attend workshops at the university campus. They learn everything from time management and leadership skills, to creating career plans and public speaking. And they must attend all the workshops with their mothers.

Without that involvement, the girls would flounder, Tarango said.

“Having someone in your family who can guide your through the process, I think it’s very important that these girls have that,” she said. “And that their families get on board.”

Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Denica Gonzalez (left) with her mother, Reina.

More than half of the girls who enter the program end up attending college. And there’s been an unexpected outcome: Mothers not only want to support their daughters’ quest for college, many want to go to college themselves.

Denica’s mom, Reina, who stopped school at 8th grade, is one of them.

“As they say, there’s no age limit to school,” Reina tells her daughter, in Spanish, as she smiles.

Denica’s says she’s all for it.

“She’s like getting a second chance to also go to school,” the daughter said. “That’s why she was so happy about it too.”

Program organizers don’t focus on the mothers. But recognizing an opportunity, they’ve created a “how to start school” session as part of the workshops for the moms. And already a handful of parents have gone back to school, and actually graduated from college alongside their daughters.

Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
ASU Hispanic Mother Daughter Program workshop.

“They get exposure to not only the workshop topics, but the actual physical place of ASU,” said Tarango, the program director. “They start to see themselves as university students.”

Alex Trillo is a professor of sociology and Latino Studies at Saint Peter’s College in New Jersey. He’s written on the issue of Latino educational achievement and is part of a federally funded project to increase Latino college attainment. He says this is just the first step in a long process.

“We want to look at these programs as moving in the right direction, but not let ourselves get too comfortable and realize that there’s still a little bit more work to be done,” Trillo said.

The goal is to get students to believe in themselves and achieve more.

“We want to inspire people to think about more competitive schools and get involved with more competitive programs,” the professor said. “I think that’s the important next step once folks really start benefiting from the kind of program that we’re talking about today.”

Photo Courtesy Saint Peter's College.
Professor Alex Trillo, Ph.D., Saint Peter's College, New Jersey.

Support systems like mothers and programs like this one at ASU seem to be part of the package of educational success for many Latinas. Trillo and other experts would like to see programs like this one expand to other states with large Latino populations.

Meanwhile, Denica Gonzalez will go to ASU for her undergraduate studies starting in the fall. She wants to eventually go to medical school at UCLA.

Reina, her mother, is registering for English classes.