It’s springtime in Florida, and for many college students, that means it’s time to lounge on unicorn floaties in the aqua-colored waters of the Atlantic, play volleyball in the sand, drink cocktails, and dance in beachside clubs. But on a balmy March afternoon in the rural South Florida community of Homestead, a group of 12 Rice University students cut loose without a drop of tequila. In fact, it only took four Spanish words:
“Para bailar la bamba,” 10-year-old Pablo Sifuentes chimed into a microphone at the Mexican American Council (MAC)’s migrant farmworker center. His classmates responded by bursting out happy notes on their accordions, guitars, violins, and horns, prompting the college students to kick up their heels and sing along.
The mariachi students hardly seemed surprised.
“Music has affected my life by getting better grades, working harder in school, not getting bored anymore,” Sifuentes, a vihuela player, told the Rice visitors.
“The violin is going to give us the opportunity in life to be whatever we want to be,” added 12-year-old violinist Sherlin Jimenez.
“Hearing about how music has impacted their goals for the future and how they were able to aroculate that at such a young age really showed me how important programs like MAC are and what amazing work they are doing,” noted Rice University student and program organizer Carolyn Daly.
This Alternative Spring Break Was an Exchange
This event marked the first time MAC, an UnidosUS Affiliate, had ever hosted a group on an “alternative spring break,” and it was a far cry from the ones most Americans typically hear about at school and church functions. Historically, an alternative spring break implied that a group of privileged college students—often White ones—would give up their spring holiday to serve the less fortunate with a short-term mission that usually involved physical labor like painting houses or repairing fences. But this group of alternative spring breakers represented youth from all different kinds of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and their outreach efforts were made to be an even exchange.
“I did not expect the kids to interact with you the way they did,” MAC Executive Director Eddie Garza told the Rice University students as they were leaving the facility. “But I think that shows what happens when you’re a kid and a cool college student comes in to talk.”
“That’s the beauty of the alternative spring break. No matter what you’re studying, you can take away insights and understandings that can be applied to your daily life,” said Rice University student and spring break organizer Serene Chen. “Whether it’s a more empathetic understanding of different populations, or a better understanding of how social issues work and the intersectionality relating to that—just being able to experience and see all that out there in the real world, outside of the classroom is a valuable experience for anybody.”
The mariachi performance raised the pride and profile of the community’s children in front of out-of-town guests, and the college students’ visit gave them an extra boost of confidence in the form of games and pep talks.
What to Expect in Higher Education
On one afternoon the Rice students visit a group of juniors and seniors at South Dade Senior High School to talk about what to expect in the first years of higher ed. They started with an icebreaker. A group of Rice students and South Dade high school students stood in a circle holding two ropes in their hands, sharing the tension of the ropes with another person holding the other ends of those ropes across the circle. The objective was to widen and narrow the distance of the ropes or move them up and down so that eventually, a ball rolling along the top of them would fall into an empty bucket.
The group laughed and cheered as they finally managed to get the ball into the bucket. Then the high school students took their seats and the college students gathered at the front of the room where they took turns offering a bit of wisdom they’d gained from their own college enrollment.
“College is by no means easy. You’ll have situations that are very stressful, but it will teach you how to deal with issues and overcome difficulties. The activity we did today was actually sort of a perfect example of that,” said Cory Pan, a Rice University sophomore. When you have the ball, you want to get the ball into the bucket from the rope but you could encounter difficulties when your ball rolls out early and misses the bucket. You kept going. You kept trying and choosing different set ups. You’d change the height of the rope or how tight you pulled it, or how much you separated the ropes. In college this translates to how you experience difficulty in a class—this can translate to changing up your study methods or going to your professor’s office for help.”
“I was really nervous going to college, being a first gen, especially at a school like Rice where it’s not like a super small school but it’s also not a really big school,” said Indya Porter, a political science and pre-law major from Southern California. “I was nervous about the demographics and everything but there are a lot of resources at Rice that I really enjoy. I was also nervous about coming in from a public high school that wasn’t amazing for my school district.”
Then came the question of paying for college, a major concern for many Latino students in America. According to data from UnidosUS, Latino youth represent about a quarter of the U.S. school population and they are attending college at increasingly higher rates. Between 1990 and 2016, Latino enrollment increased 337%. They now represent one in five students in higher education, but these students are more likely than their non-Hispanic peers to drop out before completing a full degree and to default on student loan payments.
Three new UnidosUS policy briefs presented this spring on Capitol Hill in Washington delve into the many contributing factors. For example, nearly half of these Latino students are independent or caregiver students, 40% of Latino students work more than 20 hours a week, and nearly half have an expected family contribution of $0. But several Rice University students noted that their institution was well aware of these challenges.
Kimberly Olea, a first-generation, low-income immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico said navigating college was different for her because her parents didn’t understand the U.S. system.
“A lot of stuff I had to figure out on my own. I was hesitant to apply to private schools because they are double the cost of public schools, but applying to private schools have been less expensive because of what private schools are more willing to give students,” Olea said, noting that Rice University cost her less than paying for in-state tuition in Texas because it has more flexibility and autonomy in how it leverages its resources. In fact, she said that Rice University offers full tuition, room, and board to students whose families make less than $65,000 per year.
MAC’s Own Career and College Readiness Programs
South Dade High School student and MAC participant Maria Plata, 17, welcomed these remarks because she too will be the first to attend college in her family.
“It was very important hearing their experience, to know what they went through,” said Plata, a Mexican immigrant. “I will have to go through that too.”
Plata wants to study microbiology, with the goal of working with animals, perhaps in the veterinary field. It’s a competitive industry, so she’s been preparing at school by joining science clubs, taking virtual science classes, and lining up scholarships to help pay for her studies.
One way Rice University students contributed to efforts like these was by offering the students a resume writing workshop, something that complimented MAC’s own College and Career Readiness program.
For example, MAC’s Career Exploration, a component of that program, takes students like Plata across the state of Florida to visit professionals in a wide variety of industries at their places of work.
“We’ve talked to a lot of professional people about their careers,” she said “like switching majors or how they wake up every morning and deal with their careers and go through their day.”
She also said her aspirations have also been complimented by MAC’s parent engagement program, structured in part after UnidosUS’s own Padres Comprometidoscurriculum. The goal of these programs is to get parents involved in their children’s homework and with the schools, so that they’re strategizing for college at an early age.
“My mom is more open, telling me to apply to more scholarships, to be open to colleges out of state—she’s the one pushing me to go more further,” said Plata.
“Having the support system is what a lot of students need,” said MAC Program Manager Marilu Villa. “When you have parents that have never gone to school themselves, sometimes that can be a challenge because maybe you want to be an astronaut and these are the steps you have to take, but they don’t understand those steps yet…we’re really big on not just working with the student but the parent too because we’re a team and we’re gonna make this happen.”
College as a Place of Cultural Exposure and Exchange
Garza says he was pleased to see how easily Rice University’s alternative spring break program aligned with MAC’s work, but he said communication is vital.
“My advice for UnidosUS Affiliates who might want to do something like this would be to focus on pre-planning and have clear expected outcomes with the partnerships they currently hold,” he said.
Meanwhile Villa was grateful to see that the Rice University program had intentionally chosen a broad cross-section of socio-economic and cultural experiences, and that the students spoke very specifically about going away to college. She could relate because she was the first in her family to attend college, and going away to school made all the difference.
“My parents are farmworkers, I grew up in the community, and all of that, but if I hadn’t left, I probably would have continued in farm work and probably would have dropped out in the first semester,” said Villa, who, like some of the Rice University students, worried about being a minority at college. In fact, she found herself in the predominately White town of Pensacola, Florida for her studies at University of West Florida.
“Attending a university where less than 10% of students identified as Hispanic was an eye-opening experience for me,” she said. “As an undergrad, I quickly learned that many of my peers had never met a farmworker before, much less knew that they existed. This experience taught me to find my voice and use it to teach others about the farmworker community—my community. While I graduated years ago, I have maintained the friendships that came out of this experience and it’s good to hear the support that they have for the Latino community now,” Villa added.
On the other hand, Rice University student Avery Bullock might be White, but she didn’t arrive to college with all the privileges so often ascribed to that demographic group. She’s the first to attend college in her family, noting that her parents had her when they were teenagers, making hard for them to seek advanced degrees.
“I’m definitely a low-income student, and the only reason I was able to go here was because of scholarships,” she said. “It was not an easy ride.”
Growing up outside Fort Worth, Texas, she knew nothing of college readiness programs, so learning about MAC was an excellent opportunity to witness community engagement.
“Something as amazing as this could have a really big impact. I think that there are places all over that could benefit from these exact same kinds of services, and I wish more of them existed,” said Bullock, a freshman who is currently majoring in psychology. She’s also considering two minors: one in anthropology and the other in poverty, justice, and human capabilities.
For Rice University sociology major Nery Perez, the biggest lesson was how much more enlightening it is to engage in community fieldwork and exchange by tapping into local leaders and organizations like MAC.
“A lot of sociology is going into different communities and learning about how they work, the different interactions, and something really important I’ve learned during this trip is that me, being an outsider, I can’t do that by myself,” he said. “It’s about making sure we make personal connections.”