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Casa Latina aims to develop students’ professional proficiency in both English and Spanish in their respective fields.

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There are half a million Latinos in Michigan but only 2 percent have a college degree or higher. That statistic is the driving force behind Casa Latina, a new suite of bilingual degree programs launching at Davenport University, a private higher ed institution in the state.

The initiative, to start in fall 2024, will offer a dozen online undergraduate and graduate degree programs in professional fields, including accounting, health services administration, education and business management. Courses are designed to be taught fully in English one week and fully in Spanish the next throughout the duration of the programs to ensure students develop professional-level proficiency in both. All student supports, such as financial aid advising and tutoring, will also be provided in English and in Spanish.

Gilda Gely, Davenport’s provost and executive vice president for academics, who devised the structure of the program, said in a press release that the initiative is designed in such a way that “Latino students do not have to fit into our mold, but rather we will meet them where they are and support them as they realize their potential.”

“We have been working toward launching this bilingual program with their success at the forefront of its development,” she said.

Carlos Sanchez, executive director of Casa Latina, said the goal is to serve a few different types of students from a community “severely underserved” in the state.

He envisions enrolling adult learners from Spanish-speaking countries who hold a high school degree or have some college credits. He said these students often speak fluent Spanish and some English, but neither at an academic level, and can wind up stuck in low-wage jobs. He also wants to enroll the children of immigrants who grew up in the U.S. educational system and speak fluent English and some Spanish but not with professional proficiency. He expects to attract some non-Latino students, as well, who went to bilingual or Spanish immersion schools but have few avenues to rigorously continue a bilingual education in college.

Sanchez said that, under the initiative, incoming students will get college credit for prior learning and will validate the credentials of those who already have degrees or credits earned elsewhere instead of requiring them to go through the lengthy, multistep process of having a third-party company translate and evaluate them.

He noted that of Davenport’s approximately 5,000 students, the number of Latino students enrolled is in the “single digits,” despite the fact that Michigan’s burgeoning Latino community “accounts for most of the population growth in state.”

The goal is to start with 100 students, and that many students have already expressed interest and started the application process, he said.

Richard J. Pappas, president of Davenport University, emphasized, however, that Casa Latina isn’t just about recruiting students but also about retaining and graduating them and putting them on track to careers. He noted that a focus of the university is offering career-oriented programs that lead to well-paying jobs, and the programs chosen for Casa Latina are no exception.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Pappas said. It’s also been a “heavy lift” to ensure that “everybody they [the students] deal with will be multilingual, whether it’s financial aid, it’s advising, it’s faculty; our website is in Spanish as well as English, all of our marketing materials …” The university has raised about $4 million to support the effort because “we really think this is something important.”

Sanchez noted there’s high demand for bilingual teachers and healthcare professionals to better serve Latino students and patients, so the initiative stands to benefit employers and communities, as well.

“Some of us like to say that when we get sick, we like to get sick in Spanish,” he said. Patients who express themselves better in Spanish will benefit from graduates in healthcare fields being able to speak it with professional fluency.

Some other colleges and universities have developed new programming in Spanish for Latino students in recent years. Weber State University in Utah, for example, recently announced plans starting in fall 2024 to teach classes entirely in Spanish that lead to certificates and degrees. The program, called Building Puentes, or bridges, is supported by a $2.5 million grant from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity. The Los Angeles Community College District has offered courses taught in Spanish, Korean and Russian. The University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley offers a minor in medical Spanish, and Boston College’s Latinx Leadership Initiative has courses in Spanish to train social workers to work in Latino communities.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, an organization focused on Latino student success, said her organization has a database of programs they’ve recognized for positive work with Latino students. At least seven of those programs have a bilingual component.

She believes these programs are on the rise as higher ed leaders recognize the need to serve the growing Latino populations in their communities—and the benefits to the workforce of doing so.

She noted that one of the exciting aspects of Casa Latina is its “targeting the Latino community and leveraging the strengths that they bring to an education” as Spanish speakers and it puts the focus on their “proficiency” and “talent” versus “limitations.”

She noted that the U.S. Department of Education launched an initiative last year to promote multilingual education called “Being Bilingual is a Superpower,” and Casa Latina sends a similar message.

Sanchez said the goal of the Casa Latina is “to adapt to the way the Latino community is, speaks and learns right now.”

“We Latinos, we speak in English and Spanish and Spanglish,” he said. “That is the way we want to do this.”

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