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Courtesy Grand Valley State University

Latinx students make up only about 8 percent of the enrollment at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, but the university has dedicated resources to helping those students succeed and feel included on campus. In recognition of its efforts, the university even won an inaugural Seal of Excelencia last year.

Despite not yet reaching a critical mass of Latinx or Hispanic students, which is defined as about 20 percent of enrollment, according to Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit committed to Latinx student success in higher education, staff at the university are being intentional about serving these students.

"Their efforts and strategies perpetuate beyond an individual," Santiago said. "What really stood out about Grand Valley was that their intentionality spread across the institution's leadership. That’s core for us."

While the public four-year institution's Latinx population is fairly small right now, it's growing, which is what prompted the university to start an umbrella initiative targeted at those students, said Jesse Bernal, vice president for inclusion and equity.

"The thinking was, we know this population was going to grow, and we also want to serve our current students in ways that are culturally responsive and sensitive," Bernal said. "If you center underrepresented students, you benefit everyone."

In 2012, about 50 people from across all units of the university -- from police to marketing to financial aid -- came together in a committee to figure out how to think more holistically about students.

What Bernal predicted happened. When the committee was first convened, the university's enrollment was about 2.5 percent Latinx. Now it's at about 8 percent.

​The increase reflects what's happening across the state, but especially in Ottawa County, the western part of Michigan where Grand Valley is located. Statewide, the Hispanic population increased from 446,000 to 515,000 since 2010, according to Eric Guthrie, state demographer. In Ottawa County, the increase was more significant, from about 22,000 to 28,000, or about 26 percent. This is still only about 10 percent of the county's total population

"The western part of the state is where we see population change," Guthrie said. "It’s the fastest-growing metro region in the state, and there’s a lot of dynamism in that particular part of the state."

Inclusion, Data and Training

The campus response to this change includes special orientations, a Latinx student group, retention efforts and training for both university staff and regional companies. These programs have helped contribute to an increase in Latinx enrollment, an 83 percent year-to-year retention rate for Latinx students and a 16 percent increase in the graduation rate for Latinx students. Latinx students in the 2013 cohort actually had a higher graduation rate by 2019 than the general population, at about 68.1 percent versus 67.4 percent. They were only slightly behind white students, who graduated at a rate of 69.2 percent within the six years.

Students who are part of Grand Valley's Latino Student Union praised the early orientation, called Laker Familia, which specifically welcomes Latinx students to the university. Gabriela Herrera, secretary of the student union, said she "would truly have felt lost and not at home" without the ​program.

"It can be hard to adjust to such a different environment when growing up and constantly being surrounded by culture," Herrera said in an emailed statement. "Having that support system of students and faculty that understand what it feels like is very important especially for incoming freshmen where college is already a hard and scary transition."

The university also uses a lot of data. The relatively new president, Philomena Mantella, who started last July, pushed the university to think about retention rates, Bernal said. There is now a multivariate retention analysis team that looks at data from multiple systems and triangulates it to determine how to help students succeed.

For example, Bernal said, they can look at the graduation rates of students of color depending on the type of housing they live in and see the differences and come up with solutions to problem areas. They can also layer participation in programming, financial aid awards and majors on top of those data points. They then contact students about concerns, provide student mentorship or cohort programs, and reach out to students about finishing certain tasks, like registration.

"We can provide interventions to that student," he said. "At the macro level, if we find a lot of commonalities, we can change the system to make things better."

There's also a lot of training, both within and outside the university. Grand Valley employees and potential employers of Grand Valley students can attend trainings and events focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, said Marlene Kowalski-Braun, associate vice president for inclusion and student support.

This past year, the university held an inclusive recruitment, retention and culture conference with the goal of helping local companies create better cultures for the diverse students who will eventually work there. Kowalski-Braun said they plan to host it annually. The first discussed topics ranging from antiracism to recruiting a diverse workforce to the importance of an interfaith workspace. About 160 people from dozens of companies attended.

Companies can also request continuous trainings. For example, one requested long-term training that started with focus groups and policy analysis, Kowalski-Braun said.

The training doesn't focus solely on Latinx issues, but rather intends to provide tools that companies can use to better work with any community, she said. They've held trainings on LGBTQ issues and helped employers with many Spanish-speaking employees understand Latinx culture, to name a few.

The idea to train local companies was actually sparked by stories from transgender students, who had bad experiences during internships. Now, all employers who want to do internships or co-ops with Grand Valley students learn about these issues.

"Our hope is that, by working with them, we motivate them to think about hiring diverse students and how that can benefit them," Kowalski-Braun said. "Just getting these companies to understand this and see it as an asset is what we’re trying to do."

Ed Wierzbicki, facilities supervisor at Grand Valley, attended a training that he said improved him both professionally and personally.

"We have a pretty diverse group in our department, and I think that certainly contributed to my interest," he said, adding that at the training, "there were opportunities to have candid conversations with colleagues across campus that just gave me a better understanding."

While it was uncomfortable for him in the beginning, Wierzbicki said he felt better and like he had improved after completing the training, so he recommends it to other staff.

The university also requires an "inclusive advocate" be on all search committees when hiring new staff and faculty, Bernal said. Faculty also have access to several programs through the Faculty Teaching and Learning Center.

Continuing to Improve

But there's always room for improvement. Several students in the Latino Student Union pointed out areas where Grand Valley could do better, such as with supporting transfer students and commuters, improving faculty diversity, and providing more supports for other students of color, like Native American students.

Bernal agrees that Grand Valley needs to diversify its faculty and staff, which is part of its strategic planning. So far, the number of Latinx faculty has increased by more than 20 percent and the number of Latinx staff has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2015, he said.

As far as supports for other students of color, Bernal said the Latinx student initiative model is being replicated for other populations, including Native Americans.

"Still, I am certain that no one at Grand Valley is satisfied with our racial and ethnic diversity representation. As a public institution, we believe that our university should closely model the demographic makeup of the community in which we exist. We have work to do to make that happen -- to increase access for all learners," he said in an email.

In the last year, the university has added a staff member to focus on Native student support and community engagement. Grand Valley is also the only college in Michigan with a Native American Advisory Council.

"Our work is multipronged -- focused on equity and structural diversity, inclusion and campus climate, and learning and development. This all occurs within a social justice, international and data-driven approach," he said. "And we have much work to do to reach our ideal. We are neither where we want to be nor are we ignorant to the realities of where we are."

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