Berkshire Community College forum explores needs of growing Hispanic student body in Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — There has been a significant rise in the number of students who are identified as Latino or Hispanic in both Berkshire County and the commonwealth.

According to state data, for example, Pittsfield Public Schools went from seeing 2.8 percent of students identifying as Hispanic during the 1999-2000 school year to identifying 10.8 percent of its current student body as being Hispanic.

During the same time frame, the state enrollment figures for Hispanic students went from 10.2 to 18.6 percent.

Berkshire Community College has seen a similar enrollment trend, identifying about 50 Latino students in the year 2000 to enrolling 148 Latino students in 2015, with students in this demographic making up about 7 percent of its total population.

According to 2014 federal estimates, out of a Berkshire County population of 128,715, just more than 4 percent of people are Hispanic/Latino.

"The statistics show a growth trend that goes along with the census," said Eleanore Velez, the college's multicultural admissions counselor and coordinator of the Multicultural Center.

"But one thing the numbers don't show is the successes these students have had," she said.

BCC held a public forum recently to discuss the needs of Berkshire County's growing Latino population and supporting students in their pursuit of higher education. Panelists included college students and faculty members, local legislators and community leaders.

The forum started with a brief lesson in Latino history through a screening of scenes from the PBS documentary series, "Latino Americans."

Though at times contested, the terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" tend to be used interchangeably to refer to people living in the United States who have ethnic origins from Spanish-speaking countries or U.S. territories. Typically, this includes the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, as well as Mexico, Cuba, and the countries of Central and South America.

Much like the Europeans who earlier migrated to United States in search of new opportunities and freedoms, Latinos later began leaving their home countries too, often to escape strict governments and violent political and social turmoils. Migration continues worldwide for similar reasons today.

But unlike some borders and institutions, places like Berkshire Community College have historically remained open to students of all ages, origins and interests.

Since taking her office in 2007, Velez says she has come to know each of these students' faces and their names, their struggles and successes.

At the forum, audience members met a couple among what she says are many Latino students achieving high GPAs and personal growth at the college. Gladys Garcia-Rijos introduced herself as a student who came to the Berkshires six years ago from Puerto Rico. Like many immigrants she's worked to improve her English and her skills. She graduated from Pittsfield High School as an honor roll student, and is slated to graduate this spring from Berkshire Community College, where she is a member of the Xi Alpha Chapter of the national Phi Theta Kappa honor society for junior and community colleges. She's also a student trustee of the BCC board of trustees, and said she plans to go on to a four-year college to study to become a lawyer.

"It's very important for me to be a part of organizations and classes," Garcia-Rijos said. "It's not about us being here as Latinos. We're making our presence."

Her classmate and BCC Student Government Association President Jose Alfredo Cruz also is poising himself for success. He was a high school student in Mexico before coming to the Berkshires eight years ago. He's also on track to graduate this spring, from the business administration program, with a concentration in finance. While at the college, he's lobbied the Statehouse for tuition equity, since despite their merits, immigrant students pay three times as much in tuition since they can't qualify for federal financial aid.

Cruz said he understands this is a challenging request "in a state where getting a college education is hard for pretty much everyone."

While Massachusetts has one of the most robust range of higher educational institutions in the United States, it has been battling to gain support in the Legislature to increase spending for students in its public higher education systems. In 2002, the state ranked 48th in per-capita spending. In fiscal 2013, the state ranked 26th, while serving around 67 percent of the state's high school graduates.

During the BCC forum on higher education, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said to the audience, "I can't help but sit here and think of all the students who can't be here at BCC. Why? Because we have a policy to keep people out through having them pay three times the amount as other students to be here. I don't think it's fair, and I think it hurts all of us and keeps people in poverty."

State Sen. Benjamin Downing noted that while Gov. Deval Patrick advocated for more resources to support immigrant students, Gov. Charlie Baker has historically opposed proposals for tuition equity.

Studies have shown that the Latino population in the Berkshires is surging with younger constituents, while the majority of the county's population is aging, with birth rates declining.

"It's in our own economic interest for our community to be as open and welcoming as possible," Downing said.

Cruz said he aims to raise the bar and lobby for investments not only for Latinos, but for all students.

"I would like to inspire everyone," he said. "We all have the opportunity to take different responsibilities. We're all here just to better ourselves."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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