As Nelson Ramirez walked into his first computer science class at UC Santa Cruz, he felt isolated from many of his peers.
“People who apply to this major and are studying it have background knowledge already, […] and a lot of them also have money to buy higher tech computers,” Ramirez said. “If you don’t understand things, then you’re kind of looked down upon.”
Ramirez remembers times throughout his life when he felt ashamed of the traditional Salvadoran food his mother would pack for school and instances where he pretended not to know how to speak Spanish — despite it being his first language.
Ramirez is half Mexican and half Salvadoran. As a computer science major, he attended predominantly white classes. Self-doubt cast a shadow over Ramirez’s experience in computer science classes. He later switched his major to cognitive science but believes he could’ve stayed with computer science if he had more confidence in his ability.
“Some of my friends dropped out because it’s a very polarizing space if you’re coming from a high school that’s more diverse, where you see people that look like you a lot,” Ramirez said. “When you come up here, like to any institution, […] it’s a lot harder. Where do I find my community because I feel homesick?”
Being a Latine-identifying student in higher education has brought challenges — and triumphs — for Ramirez and countless others.
On Sept. 30, UCSC received the Seal of Excelencia, a certification that rewards universities for outstanding support of their Latine students. Despite the designation, questions still remain about whether Latine students feel like they truly have a place on campus. Less than two weeks before the recognition, on Sept. 17, a Mexican flag belonging to a new student was found burned in the Rachel Carson parking lot. The incident reignited discussion about what work still needs to be done for the student community—for their wellbeing, for their heritage, and their path to academic success.
In an ever-changing time on campus, Latine student experiences have often been erased in mainstream academic narratives. With a student body that is over 25 percent Latine/Chicanx and UCSC’s decade-long classification as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), the question of how to best serve and represent Latine students remains more important than ever among student leaders, faculty, and the larger administration.
HSI Initiatives and The Path to the Seal of Excelencia
After UCSC reached the threshold of over 25 percent Latine student enrollment in 2012, the university was officially designated an HSI. This designation is a federal recognition, making UCSC eligible to apply for government funding for the creation of student programs and services on campus.
HSI Initiatives began at UCSC in 2015 as a task force to better serve the growing Latine student population. Charis Herzon, the program’s director, began working on the project the year it was established. As a UCSC alumna herself, she highlights that HSI Initiatives is “academic-community based,” providing mentorship services and academic programs, such as the GANAS Career Internship Program, Pathways to Graduate School Courses, and the Doctoral Summer Bridge Program.
The work of HSI Initiatives also focuses on analytic research of the Latine student experience in higher education. Emerita Professor of Psychology Catherine Cooper, a co-investigator with HSI Initiatives, developed the Bridging Worlds Model. As Latine students navigate the complexities of their familial background and heritage, higher education, and interpersonal relationships, the team considers the Bridging Worlds Model and other theoretical models as integral to their research.
“There’s a feeling for the young people of having opportunities and obligations that are built on the dreams of their families who have immigrated to the United States,” Professor Cooper noted. “What we see as youth navigate these multiple worlds, they’re on their own pathway.”
Professor Cooper and her team work to identify institutional barriers for Latine students, such as food insecurity and housing instability. By identifying these issues, the team can better work to address them through their outreach.
The application process for the Seal of Excelencia opened in March 2022, with the application team led by Professor Cooper and Herzon. The team provided evidence as to why they should receive the Seal, including various factors of student life and trend data for enrollment, retention, and financial support. After completing the written application, an interviewer from Excelencia in Education followed up with the team.
The certification for the Seal of Excelencia lasts three years. In order to renew this certification, the HSI team would have to apply again. The grants received through HSI Initiatives, however, have a five-year cycle and are non-renewable. The university has received five grants since it applied for the first grant in 2015. It has invested in student resources such as the Educational Opportunity Programs as well as the pedagogy workshop for the Center of Innovative Teaching & Learning.
For Xiomara Lopez, director of UCSC’s Latine student resource center El Centro and member of the HSI Initiatives Leadership Committee, the Seal of Excelencia is only a checkpoint — albeit an important one — in establishing true equity and support for Latine students on campus.
“Despite being an HSI, I think students are still struggling to find a sense of belonging,” Lopez said. “I think [the Seal of Excelencia] is a sign of hope and a reminder that we have work to do still.”
Student-Led Organizations: More Than Just Academic
Third-year Daniela Obeso has struggled to talk about her culture throughout her life. Growing up in a predominantly white area of Los Angeles, she often felt disconnected from her Mexican heritage.
“It wasn’t until I got to UCSC [that] I felt more comfortable talking about my culture because of the [organizations] that I was in and the people that I surrounded myself with,” Obeso said.
Obeso currently serves as the co-chair of Hermanas Unidas, an on-campus organization that provides resources and leadership opportunities to Latine students.
Through her organization’s work, Obeso hopes to challenge accepted ideas of which students are considered to be “worthy” of higher education.
“I feel like a lot of [Latine] or any other multicultural students feel like they don’t belong in higher education because of stigma or imposter syndrome,” Obeso explained. “I wish that students would realize that they do deserve to be at college […] in spaces where traditionally they haven’t been represented.”
Despite the positive relationship she has with the HSI Initiatives, she wishes the university would do more to promote its resources to the student body. She feels that more persistent outreach on newsletters, like El Centro and the EOP Network, would be highly beneficial.
Third-year Leslie Marquez felt more alienated from her Mexican identity upon arrival at UCSC. Coming from the San Fernando Valley, she struggled deeply with the transition from high school to college. Marquez turned to Latine organizations to surround herself with other students with similar backgrounds and experiences.
Marquez currently holds the position of Historian for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), an organization that empowers Latine/Chicanx students on campus through education and political involvement. She is also the Program Coordinator for Engaging Education (e2), a retention-based organization that uplifts students from historically underrepresented communities.
In a statement commending the Seal, Chancellor Cynthia Larive thanked faculty and staff for their work that led them to that moment.
However, Marquez felt that Larive’s statement did not give proper recognition to student-run organizations. Marquez attributes the Seal of Excelencia primarily to the students who run retention clubs on campus. She believes they are truly responsible for the reinforcement she has received as a Latine student at UCSC.
“I think [student-led organizations] provide a lot of what the school doesn’t: building community, having resources for our peers to feel supported and encouraged,” Marquez said, “I feel like the school just kind of claimed [the Seal] completely for themselves.”
Marquez feels that the university can better represent its Latine students in several ways, such as expanding El Centro, lowering tuition, and hiring more professors and administrators of Latine backgrounds.
Imposter syndrome affects college students widely, especially marginalized students who face different struggles than their peers. Fourth-year Dyanna Rodriguez understands this deeply as a first-generation, Mexican and Nicaraguan student.
Moving to Santa Cruz was an adjustment for her in addition to dealing with the pressure of pursuing higher education from her family and friends.
“There was this big pressure for me to go to school to make [my family’s] sacrifices worth it,” Rodriguez said. “There was a narrative that was a big pressure for students who did academically well. Your parents are sacrificing all this stuff so you could be here and you need to make them proud.”
Rodriguez has been involved in Oakes Senate and student organizations including (e2), MEChA, and Chicanx and Latinx Educandose (ChALE). Since joining, she now serves as the Co-Chair of (e2) and is currently in charge of Educational Affairs on the board of MEChA.
She acknowledges the work that HSI Initiatives does in terms of retention. Like Marquez, Rodriguez notes that the Big Five ethnic organizations and many other organizations on campus have a lot to do with earning the Seal of Excelencia and in Latine student retention.
“Without the support that I’ve gotten from these [organizations], I don’t know if I would still be here at this school,” Rodriguez said. “If I could prevent that [lack of support] from happening to other students, I think it makes me feel very fulfilled and happy.”
As the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Intern for ChALE and Student Retention Coordinator for MEChA, fourth-year Nelson Ramirez has found that student retention goes beyond academic help, and into fostering interpersonal connections among peers through student organizations.
“You have worth and value at this university,” Ramirez said. “Primarily, you’re going to be in classrooms, where most of the time it’s going to be mostly white identifying folks. So here’s a space where you can bond with people that you can identify with.”
“Strength, Resilience, Compassion”
On Sept. 17, a Mexican flag belonging to a new student and their family was found burnt and torn up on campus. The university released a statement almost a month after the incident. The administration denounced the crime and vowed to investigate it, stating, “Many in our community have shared that they do not feel that the university has acted on this issue. We want to assure you that we always take situations like this seriously.”
The incident and the university’s delayed response sparked feelings of fear, disappointment, and anger in Latine students across the community. In moving forward, Xiomara Lopez calls for the importance of reconciliation and healing.
“The hurt really ripples throughout our campus. It doesn’t just affect Mexican-identifying students, it affects all students. It affects their ability, their right to feel safe on this campus,” said Lopez. “We really need to come together and use our collective voices to offer solidarity to those impacted and to reaffirm our values of the Latine community of strength, resilience, [and] compassion.”
Supporting Latine students at UCSC is a twofold effort involving both the university and student voices. In the face of division, Ramirez sees a greater need than ever for the existence of community spaces for all students.
“There exists many spaces for you to be a part of. Go to all of them, […] get involved there, and try to make a difference, leave some type of improvement or just add on to the space the way you see fit,” Ramirez said. “If you’re going through any struggles or any fears, you’re not alone.”