Is SRJC truly a Hispanic Serving Institution?

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Illustration by Liam Vinueza

SRJC has Hispanic Serving Institution status, but are Latinx students easily able to access the resources allotted to them?

Liam Vinueza, Social Media Editor

Since 2014, Santa Rosa Junior College has disbursed $30 million in student loans and been awarded at least $500,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Education geared toward supporting Latinx, first-generation and low-income students, according to Pedro Avila, SRJC vice president of student services. 

Some of this funding is thanks to SRJC earning Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) status from the federal government because 25% of the student body is defined as “Hispanic.” 

But has all this funding actually helped Latinx students?

“It’s kinda hard to say,” said student Jocelyn Toscano, MEChA co-chair and nutrition major. “The resources are there; it’s the access that isn’t great.”

Indeed, new grants, health centers and educational courses have allowed SRJC to curb dissonance between Latinx students and the college; however, challenges continue to face the Latinx community attending the institution. 

“SRJC was doing absolutely zero outreach to the undocumented community,” said Rafael Vazques Guzman, EOPS Outreach Coordinator, speaking on his experience starting out as a part time SRJC faculty. 

Guzman, a first-generation Latino student himself, is aware of the importance of outreach to historically underrepresented communities; he had parents who could not support him through higher education. Hired as a full-time EOPS coordinator, Guzman now focuses his efforts on reaching out to elementary to high school students to encourage them to think about higher education.   

Toscano agrees outreach from SRJC at an early age could be best for these students. Of her experience, she added, “The JC only connected with us when it was our second semester of senior year, when we were about to graduate… the JC said, ‘Hey, quickly sign up in case you don’t get into your four-year college.’”

Students silently struggle

Mental health is a significant struggle in the SRJC Latinx community, especially with a cultural stigma against seeking treatment for mental health issues.

Between keeping up with expectations at home, work and school, and with inflation on the rise, students often silently struggle. 

“A lot of students are having problems with their mental health,” Guzman said. 

He recalls hearing students tell EOPS they are feeling too depressed and anxious to continue attending classes, particularly through online learning; others dealt with loss of family members due to COVID complications. 

Toscano, a first-generation DACA recipient and the oldest of three-siblings, has first-hand experience in dealing with the combined stress of school and home life on her mental health. She endured the pandemic while sharing a room with a younger sister and attending Zoom classes. 

Ultimately, Toscano had to move out to focus on her studies and escape the “chaotic” environment at home. She said she’s heard similar stories of fellow students having to keep up with home life, all while attending online classes.

Guzman has noticed the difficulties students faced while attending online classes. “Zoom did not provide multiple things: The ability to ask questions in the same manner in the classroom, different office hours, and the privacy to participate fully in your education,” he said. 

Combined with the stigma of seeking support in their struggles many students had only the option of dropping classes altogether. 

“For part of the population, [the other challenge] is really the economics of it all,” Guzman said. 

Tied hand-in-hand with mental health come the financial struggles students face.

Although HSI grants and scholarships have paved the way in supporting SRJC’s Latinx community, not all students have enjoyed the benefits. Federal and emergency grants available to SRJC students during the pandemic excluded undocumented students. “The planning and execution sometimes are not what should be happening,” Guzman said. 

In what ways has SRJC improved? 

“The JC has been going through a transition,” said Pedro Avila, vice president of student services, and an immigrant, first-generation college student and son of parents who picked fruit in the fields of Salinas.

Avila said part of his mission is to transform SRJC from an institution that historically served white, wealthy Sonoma residents to a more inclusive one. This includes hiring culturally competent mental health support staff for Latinx students and expanding and relocating SRJC’s Dream Center, which helps undocumented students with AB540 admissions, DACA renewals, academic counseling and more. In addition to hiring a full-time Dream Center coordinator, the center is partnering with VIDAS, a nonprofit offering free legal services for immigrant students. 

Avila also said that efforts are being made to alleviate financial pressures on Latinx students. Avila and his team are working on a new HSI grant in partnership with Sonoma State University (SSU) that can increase transfer rates of Latinx students to SSU. Through the grant, Latinx students would have guaranteed admission to SSU after completion of SRJC’s transfer requirements, as well as access to transitional courses to prepare students and scholarships to cover tuition costs. 

Programs such as PUENTE and the high school equivalency program (HEP) have also provided support for Latinx students at SRJC. PUENTE focuses its efforts on mentoring and increasing student enrollment in four-year colleges while HEP helps migrant workers obtain a high school diploma through preparation classes, personalized tutoring, support with testing fees, transportation assistance and transition courses. 

Low-income and EOPS students will have priority in choosing rooms in the new student housing under construction. According to Avila, Student Services is working on securing additional funding to reduce on-campus housing costs, which are already below market rate.

MEChA is also trying to improve Latinx students’ circumstances. 

From community work during the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire to providing the community with masks and information during the pandemic and putting pressure on SRJC to release grant expenditure information and statistics on its Latinx student body, MEChA’s cultural, educational and political edge has found ways to better serve the Latinx community. 

SRJC’s Disabled Resources Department (DRD) is also expanding its outreach to Latinx students. It is updating the DRD website with Spanish translation to encourage Latinx students to reach out for mental health services and dispel common myths that are associated with the word “disabled.” 

“Rather than having students come to us, we want to start creating ways [DRD] can embed ourselves in programs on campus,” said Debbie Ezersky, deaf and hard of hearing program coordinator. 

Ezersky is a member of the Lanzamiento team, a group that offers counseling, tutoring, mental health services, financial aid workshops and transfer support to Latinx, low-income and first-generation college students. Lanzamiento students can take special course sections led by instructors who have employed enhanced teaching methods to ensure these students succeed.  

Brijida Aleman, a Mexican-American and Native American Student Health Services member, and a first-generation college graduate, understands the cultural impact of mental health on Latino students. “Latino culture doesn’t recognize mental health,” Aleman said. 

Recognizing that SRJC’s support for Latinx mental health hasn’t always been there, Ezerksy and Aleman are hoping to acquire a long term bilingual success coach for disabled Latinx students as well as expand therapeutic services to include family therapy. 

“I think in general, [SRJC] needs to continue to have honest dialogue about what we are and are not doing,” Guzman said. 

Though the college community has plenty of work to do, the resources for Latinx students are there — but only time will tell how successful SRJC will be in catering to this important and growing population in Sonoma County.