Cronkite-Carnegie Initiative

What does it take for Latino men to get to and through college?

Supportive families are key, say four Arizona State University students. Outside institutions such as leadership programs, high school counseling services and Latino fraternities also play a role.

But above all, these young men seem powered by a sense of destiny: a sense that they are right for college and college is right for them. "I was always good in school," says Political Science and International Studies major Albert Ojeda. "I'm not good at that many things, but academics I was good at so I decided to run with it, to set myself apart."

Albert Ojeda now works in the university's admissions office, helping other community college students make the transition to ASU.

In the West Phoenix neighborhoods where Ojeda grew up, college ambitions truly did set him apart. His father was killed in a drug-related shooting when he was five. His mother sank into addiction and became unable to care for him and his siblings. The kids bounced from house to house.

"Even when I was six, I knew where I was living wasn't really home. I understood the situation I was in and I understood the situation my mom was in," he recalls. "I tried to learn from their mistakes."

Ojeda did well in school until his senior year. He stopped studying and cut classes. College scholarships that had been within reach slipped away. He graduated with no plans and no direction.

"I always wanted to go to college but I wasn't able to afford it," he recalls. After "a year and a half of wasting time," he enrolled in Avondale's Estrella Community College. Good grades there restored his confidence.

"I felt like community college was the best choice because then I could work my way back up. Which I did; I graduated from there with a 4.0 GPA," he recalls. He transferred to Arizona State to finish his degree.

Like Ojeda, ASU Spanish major Rogelio Ruiz noticed a talent for academics early in life.

"I would come home and show my parents my grades and they would get really excited and really happy. To me it was a motivation," he recalls.

Ruiz didn't get off to the easiest start either. He was eight years old and living in Mexico when his father announced the family was moving to the U.S. His father was a legal resident; the rest of the family entered the country undocumented.

Rogelio Ruiz loads Thanksgiving supplies into a car to deliver to low-income families as part of a fraternity project.

"We crossed the desert, so we had to get up at 6 am. We started walking, we had a gallon of water and all of a sudden my dad was like agachense, agachense, which is 'get down'. And then we saw the Border Patrol and we got deported back to Mexico."

The family stayed at a friend's house near the border and tried again the next morning, this time successfully. They settled in little Wickenburg, Arizona, about an hour northwest of Surprise.

"Growing up it was a one bedroom trailer. Me and my sister slept on the floor, my older brother and little brother slept on the couch and my mom and dad had the little bed," Ruiz says. "We started out with nothing. Then you learn the language and gradually your family starts doing better and better."

Much as community college helped Albert Ojeda regain his confidence, Ruiz says ASU's Cesar Chavez Leadership Institute inspired him to pursue higher education.

"I thought I wasn't good enough for university but after I completed the program, they told me: "Here are your resources to go to college, here's financial aid, here's scholarships, you can get a tuition waiver, and it opened my eyes and I thought, okay, I can do it."

Nicholas Bustamante, a Politicial Science major, says help navigating the system is a crucial advantage (see slideshow). His parents were success stories in their own right: his father put himself through law school and his mother earned a masters degree.

Bustamante went to a private high school where the counselors made sure every student got into college.

"I feel like my parents and the high school I went to pushed me on to higher education," says Bustamante.

"There's a system of institutionalized oppression that really does go on in marginalized neighborhoods, which are predominantly Hispanic and African American. There's just not a sense that success is available to them," he adds.

"That's why I really do thank my parents and grandparents for making me look beyond all that and making me focus on higher education like they did."

Journalism student Johnny Garcia also learned the value of education from a young age (see slideshow). His parents work in a dry-cleaning store in West Phoenix. But his mother had been a teacher in Mexico.

"My mom never let me forget Spanish," he recalls. "Even before I went to grade school she would always make me read Spanish and write words ten times each in Spanish. She always said 'I want you to be a good reader and writer.' The only language she knew how to read and write was Spanish, so that's what she taught me."

Even now, with her son a year away from graduating, Garcia's mother is setting a good example: she's taking English classes five times a week to learn to read and write.

Of course, getting to college is only part of the battle. According to a 2004 Pew Hispanic Center Report, only 23 percent of Latinos who enroll as undergraduates go on to get a degree. Ruiz and Bustamante say the Hispanic fraternity Omega Delta Phi has helped them stay and succeed at ASU.

"When I first moved into my dorm I guess my roommate wasn't happy with me, so his dad called me and asked me to switch dorms," recalls Ruiz. "I just felt like, you know, maybe college isn't for me. I didn't have the motivation,

I didn't have a support group." ODPhi gave him that support group, he says. "I really fell in love with the fraternity."

A woman begs for change from passing cars in a heavily Hispanic area of West Phoenix

There are specific reasons why young Latino men may have a harder time advancing to higher education than their female counterparts, Williams says. First, boys tend to have more freedom to go out at night, which can mean greater exposure to drugs and other distractions. Second, boys growing up outside the dominant culture may struggle in school because they're reluctant to seek help.

"Boys don't want to ask questions," Williams explains. "They want to figure it out on their own because that's what the culture tells them they should do."

Low education levels among Latino men are a "silent crisis," according to Victor Saenz of the University of Texas at Austin. What are the consequences for them, and for the nation? Williams argues they are clear and alarming.

"The impact on the US is quite dramatic. That's the fastest growing population," he says. "If we want to be competitive as a nation we have to train the minds of people we've largely ignored."