ECU Hosts Latino Education Conference

On Friday, October 24, 2008, East Carolina University culminated a month of events celebrating Hispanic Heritage month with the “Building Leadership for Latino Access to Education” conference at Mendenhall Student Center.

The conference was designed to bring together leadership in the eastern North Carolina Latino community with ECU students, faculty, and staff to carry out a dialogue on critical issues of educational access that continue to affect Latinos in the region.

From left: Andrea Bristol, Diana Battle, Dr. David Conde worked with many others to organize the "Building Leadership for Latino Access to Education" conference at ECU.

Dr. David Conde, senior associate vice chancellor for special initiatives at ECU, helped organize the conference because he believes that the university is primed for a dramatic increase in Latino enrollment in the years to come. Current statistics show that Latino students make up larger percentages in North Carolina primary and secondary schools than ever before. Through the “Building Leadership for Latino Access to Education” conference, ECU is beginning preparations now to be able to properly accommodate those students when they are of college age.

“ECU is being proactive because right now, less than 2 percent of our student population is Latino,” he said. “And yet we know, that by 2020, one third of students coming in will be Latino. That means we have a lot of work to do.”

Apart from the cooperation from many colleges, departments, and offices on campus, the conference also welcomed community groups to help facilitate the discussion about how ECU can help make access to education a priority in the Latino community.

“These students are in the pipeline already, so we have to find a way to partner with parents, partner with schools from kindergarten all the way up, to see that those students come out with the qualifications to be able to attend ECU,” said Conde.

The conference featured a keynote address by Dr. Antonio Esquibel, emeritus professor, and member of the Board of Trustees at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and breakout sessions dealing with the Latino student experience, the path to college, migrant education, health education, parent participation, and community engagement.

One of the themes to come out of the conference was the idea of cultural competency—that culture is relevant and important, and should be taken into account when a person is dealing with someone from another culture. In a sense, it is contrary to the concept of colorblindness, that states that everyone should be treated the same regardless of ethnicity or culture.

The conference featured breakout sessions with ECU and community experts on health education (top), community outreach (middle), and parent participation (bottom).

“Cultural competency is the ability to understand someone’s background and take it into account. It is recognizing the fact that they are different, or that they may see themselves as different, and being willing to understand it, and not push your own agenda onto that,” said Dr. Monica Mendéz, assistant professor of criminal justice at ECU. “Without knowing that, you can’t really help people because they bring with them whatever it is that they’ve been through.” She believes that cultural competency can help ECU connect with the Latino community as well.

“If we don’t understand [Latino students’] backgrounds and where they are coming from, we’re not going to be able to attract them to the university,” she said.

ECU’s service-learning and volunteer system is also seen as a key to implementing the type of local community interaction that the conference advocated. Community volunteers can reach out to students and families in the Latino community and improve academic performance in primary and secondary schools in the state. It can also improve ECU’s reputation in the local communities and throughout North Carolina.

However, according to Jessica Gagne Cloutier, service-learning coordinator at the ECU Volunteer and Service-Learning Center, there is still work to be done in order to maximize the potential service learning has in helping provide access to education for Latinos.

“It’s common on this campus to have a service-learning experience that is five to 10 hours. That is not nearly enough for [a volunteer] to learn about a community, build trust with a community, and accomplish anything. The national standard is 25 to 50 hours in a semester, preferably five hours a week,” she said.

In that regard, the “Building Leadership for Latino Access to Education” conference was successful in discussing both the opportunities and the challenges ECU faces in facilitating change—a crucial first step. The conference was the first of what ECU hopes will be an annual event. Planning for future conferences is underway with emphasis on more topics of importance to the Latino community in North Carolina, and there is every reason to believe the conference will grow and be even more productive in the years to come.