If you ask Chancellor Dr. Steve Cole about the blossoming Hispanic presence at Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas, he first points to the college's mission statement.
That mission once was long and detailed, he said. But now, the focus is more direct.
"UA-Cossatot embraces diversity — first four words of our mission statement," he said, pointing out that it covers all underrepresented populations, not just Latino.
But the college has found great success in growing its Latino student body, specifically. Many such students are becoming the first generation in their families to stay in school and go to college, inspired by the American dream in a city that's more than half Hispanic.
"When we first launched that brand new mission several years ago, it has driven our new strategic plan. It's driven all that we do," said Cole, adding that the new mission statement received buy-in from not only the college but also the community.
"You'll notice that when we first put together our strategic plan, when I first became chancellor_that was 2010_one of the parts of that strategic plan said that we were going to do a better job in recruiting and retaining Latino populations," Cole said.
Administrators identified Latinos as the population with the largest discrepancy between numbers in the community and numbers enrolled in the college.
The Texarkana Gazette reports that such numbers tell part of the story about the Hispanic community's increased presence at UA-Cossatot. According to figures provided by the college, the percentage of Hispanic students more than doubled over the course of a decade — from 10 percent of total enrollment in fiscal year 2007-08 to 23.4 percent in FY 2016-17.
In 2009-10, the Hispanic percentage dipped to 8.6 percent, even though Hispanic residents make up about a third of the population in Sevier County, Cole said.
"It was by far the one that was off the most," he said.
But establishing a commitment to diversity in their mission statement and thinking in those terms brought results at Cossatot.
"We started doing the right things in recruiting. We started doing the right things in hiring the right employees," Cole said. The last three semesters saw an average of 27 percent Hispanic enrollment. In this way, Cossatot has started to better reflect the community it represents and educates.
"Now we actually have a college population that looks like the population of our area," Cole said.
Why is that important?
"Well, it's important because we know that we are properly serving each and every person in our population. We're not missing somebody," Cole said.
Cole said local feeder schools, particularly De Queen's public school system, have a large and growing percentage of Hispanic students. These are traditional, college-bound students.
"We think we're finally keeping up with that trend," he said.
The chancellor said the college has detected a parallel discrepancy among nontraditional students, a population that fell drastically in the past five years.
"Which used to be our bread and butter," he said. Now, though, the average age of Cossatot students is 19. The drop doesn't really sit well with college officials.
"We should be serving that population," Cole said.
With a data-driven approach, administrators have begun to address the issue. Cole said a few marketing and scheduling decisions appeared to leave nontraditional students out, so the college started registering students at night and added more night classes. UA-Cossatot also needs to address underrepresentation of the African-American community, the chancellor said.
How did UA-Cossatot find success with the Latino population? The college hired bilingual recruiter Erika Buenrrostro, coordinator of its Center for Student Success.
"By going into the schools, you know I do recruit for everybody, but with the Latino population, what I do know for myself is that when students see people like them, they want to come up and ask more questions, rather than just think, 'Oh, well, that's them, and I could never do that,'" Buenrrostro said.
UA-Cossatot also has more Hispanics in its workforce, both a conscious and organic change, the chancellor said. They now get more Latino applicants with credentials such as master's degrees.
"The other things that we've done is we've tried to raise money for scholarships, which students would qualify for and we also do that by hosting a big festival," Buenrrostro said.
The college's Diversity Festival "was our way to bring them onto campus," a way to make Latinos feel like it's their house, too, she said.
Language barriers exist, Cole said, despite dealing with second- and third-generation families, because they have to reach the family decision-makers and speak their language. Buenrrostro said she works with a lot of first-generation Latino college students.
"I know when they come up here, nobody in their family has gone to college," she said.
It can be hard to get these first-generation students to open up about their decision to attend college. But in private discussion, she gains a sense of what they want.
"It's family, and it's doing more than their parents could ever imagine that they were going to be able to do. The American dream. To sum it up, that's what inspires them, just doing more than their parents ever could've thought that they could've done," Buenrrostro said.
For some, it's as easy as wanting to not work in a chicken plant.
Hispanics face certain barriers when it comes to post-secondary education, according to a yearlong study of UA-Cossatot by Clinton School of Public Service graduate students, Cole said.
They talked to students in the high schools and saw some trends. For one thing, it was the "initial fright," as Cole called it, over the idea of going to college. That's something career counselors have kept in mind, he said. Money is also a barrier, but that's true of most Southwest Arkansas students.
"It's tough. I mean, I think 70-something percent of all of our students that attend here qualify for Pell (Grants)," Cole said. "That's an extremely high number."
With the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offering students protection from deportation, Cole said that in the last year out of 1,500 students, 44 were undocumented immigrants_"a lower number than people would think."
Some residents are concerned about the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants who would have been protected from deportation under the DREAM Act, he said.
"I think there's some fear of what might happen with some of the executive orders that are in place," said Cole, who has worked with the nonpartisan Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and its migration policy institute on the effect of undocumented students on Arkansas education.
The chancellor said the 27 percent Latino student population at UA-Cossatot is the highest per capita in the state.
"As of this coming December when we get all of our numbers turned in, we will qualify as the first HSI, Hispanic Serving Institution, in Arkansas," Cole said. The next highest, he said, is Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville with 14 percent.
"I'm proud of that. I'm proud that we have a college population that more closely resembles the general population. I'm proud of that because that means we're not, in my opinion, leaving anyone out, we're not leaving anyone behind. We're doing a good job of going out and grabbing these folks and making them feel welcome and getting them an education," Cole said.
It's not just the college whose Hispanic population is growing, though. In 2000, De Queen's population was 38.6 percent Hispanic or Latino; by 2010, they made up 53.5 percent of the city's residents, according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau.
De Queen Mayor Billy Ray McKelvy said, without the Hispanic presence, the city's total population would probably be going down. But the Sevier County annual population estimate shows the county is still growing, he said.
"I'm glad that we're continuing to grow a little bit instead of shrinking," McKelvy said. "I think the growth is going to be in the Hispanic population."
The mayor has lived in De Queen since 1984, when few Hispanic people lived in the town. Hispanic immigration surged in the 1990s for jobs in the poultry industry at Pilgrim's Pride and Tyson.
"They came here for jobs, I think, and both companies still employ lots of Latinos," he said.
But they've done more than work with poultry.
"I think that as they've stayed longer and become more established, lots of them have started out on their own, started businesses, bought homes, things like that. They've kind of grown with the community," McKelvy said.
Many of the local Hispanic-owned businesses are restaurants, but there are also clothing, furniture, grocery and convenience stores; a printing and office supply business; used car dealerships; churches; and more. They've helped keep downtown De Queen active.
The mayor said many other businesses, such as insurance firms, hire workers who speak Spanish "so they can do business with their customers," he said. McKelvy said the city currently has about 60 employees with three Latino workers, including one police officer.
He believes that, for the most part, the community gets along very well as the demographics have changed.
"We are a very diverse community," he said.
He attributes that success to the community's seeing Hispanics as potential customers_people to conduct business with_rather than immigrants. "I wouldn't say it's perfect, but I think we get along pretty well here," he said.
The Latino population in De Queen is also young.
"They interact at school. It starts there and just carries on," McKelvy said, noting that tension and resentment about undocumented immigrants does exist.
"I think people disapprove of that. If it's illegal, I can't say it's a good thing," McKelvy said. "We're charged with upholding the law." But he pointed out the city doesn't enforce immigration law.
At the same time, he said, he believes people have "a soft spot for the young people who came here, the Dreamers that came here as children. They are locked in limbo."
McKelvy said the city hired someone under the DACA program.
"But there are a lot of young people out there that have gone through the school system, have done great, very successful. Going to college, if they go, they have to pay their own way because there's not financial aid," the mayor said. He believes the country needs to figure out a way for them to be accommodated.
"To expect them to leave the country and go back to Mexico or some other country that they have never known is probably not realistic," McKelvy said. " We have people here that need workers. We have businesses that are trying to hire auto mechanics, clerks, tellers and things like that."
And what the mayor sees of Hispanic youth in De Queen he likes.
They have a student of the month program at the local Lions Club, he said, and about half of them are Latino.
"Just very impressive young people. Good attitude, good work ethic," McKelvy said. "You know they're going to be successful, whatever they do."
Information from: Texarkana Gazette, http://www.texarkanagazette.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Texarkana Gazette.