Valeria Cortez had high hopes when she decided to attend Sacramento State in 2019.

A native of San Jose, Cortez had struggled to find a Latino community in her high school of 3,000 students. That would soon change, she thought.

Cortez envisioned a university where she would find faculty who shared similar backgrounds, the inclusion of Latino indigenous authors in the curriculum and spaces where she could feel comfortable practicing her Spanish.

Sacramento State seems to offer that environment.

In 2015, Sacramento State was recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, making it eligible for millions of dollars in federal grants.

That status and funding has coincided with the school’s Latino population increasing to 38%. The institution as of this year is one of 30 in the country with a Seal of Excelencia — a certification highlighting a commitment to Latino students and their successes.

But Cortez’s time at Sacramento State suggests the university may not fully be living up to its name. Now a senior, Cortez is still searching for that community she longed for in high school.

“I haven’t experienced any of that,” Cortez said. “I’m still hoping, by the time I graduate, I find that community within the school.”

Interviews with Latino faculty, administrators and students reveal that Cortez is not alone in her feelings. Many raise concerns, saying Sacramento State’s HSI label is not synonymous with addressing student needs. And some are leading the charge for the designation to take on more meaning.

In an open letter last month, Heidy Sarabia, an associate professor of sociology, called the current state of the university “unacceptable.”

“Sac State is failing as a Hispanic Serving Institution, it is failing our faculty, our staff, and our students most,” wrote Sarabia.

‘It’s a Hispanic-enrolling institution’

The Sacramento State HSI discussion comes amid a nationwide increase in these institutions. In 2021-22, there were 572 institutions across the country that met the definition, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

California has more than any other state, with 174 HSIs.

The rise is attributed to an overall increase in the enrollment and concentration of Hispanics in colleges around the country. For some, it raises questions about how well schools are serving Latino students.

“I don’t know if any institution that is an HSI is living up to the name of being a serving institution,” said Amber Gonzalez, an associate professor of child and adolescent development at Sacramento State.

The HSI label, Gonzalez said, is solely numbers-based. HSIs must have a student body that is at least 25% Hispanic. And though grants are focused on Latino and low-income students, the federal government does not require they specifically benefit Hispanics.

Since 2015, Sacramento State has been awarded $16.5 million in HSI federal funding.

Manuel Barajas, a professor of sociology, does not mince words about the university’s HSI status and questions how it was given that label.

“Of course, it’s not a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” said Barajas. “It’s a Hispanic-enrolling institution.”

For Barajas, the problem starts and ends with faculty representation.

When Barajas arrived at Sacramento State in 2002, Latinos made up 7% of the faculty. Twenty-one years later, they make up 8%. Latinos also face the largest ratio disparity of students to faculty of all racial and ethnic groups.

However, Barajas says even that 1% increase is deceiving.

In 2004, Latinos consisted of 8% of the tenured faculty. In 2020, they decreased to 4.5%. Tenure density is vital, according to Barajas, because part-time work is insecure and low-paying.

“Students do not see a reflection of who they are, their accents, styles or backgrounds among the faculty… There’s a positive correlation with having mentorship that looks like you and academic success,” Barajas said.

There’s also issues with retention. Barajas and Gonzalez both shared multiple experiences of Latino professors leaving the campus for other opportunities.

Barjas did a survey of 12 Latino professors in 2020 across different departments to get a better understanding of their belonging. His final question asked if they envisioned remaining at the university until retirement.

All 12 professors said they had no plans of staying at Sacramento State.

University leadership

Sacramento State President Robert Nelsen believes the university is living up to its HSI name, but acknowledged that the representation statistics are “concerning.”

“It’s important that we increase the number of faculty and we’re dedicated to doing that,” Nelsen said. “We want our faculty to look like our students.”

He highlighted the last two years of hiring. Last year, the school hired 63 faculty, 17% of which were Latino. Nelsen said it’s “not enough,” but will be built on.

Nelsen also pointed to Sacramento State’s history of supporting the Latino student population including its college migrant assistance program, the second oldest in the nation. The campus also offers a Dreamer resource center for undocumented students, and a Serna Center to enhance Latino leadership and civic engagement.

Those resources and support have earned the institution a rare Seal of Excelencia.

“That is one of the most prestigious fields there is,” Nelsen said.

Carlos Nevarez, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs, has been working with Nelsen to address the gaps in equity. Nevarez is currently the highest-ranking Latino on campus, and makes up the 1% of Latino administration at the school.

Non-traditional hiring practices have been his focus, Nevarez said. “We need to rework, rethink, reframe the way we do hiring to ensure that we’re providing opportunities for individuals like myself,” Nevarez said.

To truly serve students, Nevarez said, the university must ensure students feel a sense of belonging and advance their successes. He prioritizes graduation rates as an important marker, noting they have increased significantly in recent years. In 2012, the four-year graduation rate was 9% for Latinos. The rate rose to 28% by 2018.

What’s ahead for Sac State?

It took three years for Cortez to learn of Sacramento State’s HSI designation.

In the fall of her junior year, she was scrolling through Instagram when an online flyer caught her attention. The posting was calling on Hispanic students to participate in a project examining the needs of Latinx students on campus and their perception of the university as a HSI.

Cortez’s interest in social justice and change led her to apply, and she ultimately became one of two dozen students involved in the research project.

The two-year project is set to culminate this May and is co-led by Gonzalez. The project’s main goal is to identify how Sacramento State can better serve Latino students. The results highlight a need for more faculty representation, Latino and indigenous culture in the classroom and continued outreach of available resources.

“It’s not to say Sac State isn’t doing anything. They are. But this is our way of saying ‘how can we make it better?’” said Cortez.

In Cortez’s eyes, an easy fix would be updating curriculum and and textbooks. She pushed for classroom materials that showcase people of color, specifically individuals that would empower her as a Latina.

Professors, like Sarabia, believe that diversity in the classroom can be built upon with the establishment of a Latinx/Chicanx or Latin American studies major. She hopes the major can lead to the eventual creation of an entire campus department.

“A department where we can exercise that kind of leadership that is needed, that kind of power that is needed to continue to move forward,” Sarabia said.

Nelsen, who retires at the end of the academic year, has even bigger goals for the university. “I hope that we don’t have another white, bald president here,” Nelsen said.

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