Ada Diaz Kirby could easily have skipped college and concentrated on her career in the telecommunications industry in order to support her parents and a younger brother, who immigrated to the United States after she had grown.
Ms. Diaz Kirby, 52, is now president of her own company, CommTech International of Denver, a high-tech, computer-based training firm, and she is still at somewhat of a loss to explain why she insisted on attending and graduating from college.
“It was very difficult because I did it pretty much on my own, and no one really told me, ‘You have to go to college,’ ” says Ms. Diaz Kirby, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States at age 11 and grew up in an orphanage and foster homes. She has lived on her own since high school.
“Even though I was so far removed from the [Cuban] culture and my parents and any adult supervision, I had this message that kept playing in my mind that [attending college] was expected of me,” she says.
Ms. Diaz Kirby, who graduated with honors from Regis University in Denver in the late 1980s, says high expectations – both her own and those of others – and a culture that values education contributed to her college and career success.
High expectations and respect for the educational process are among the many factors in the K–12 years that experts point to as important in preparing Hispanic students for educational and professional success in the United States.
Despite sometimes-gloomy statistics to the contrary, success stories abound among U.S. Hispanics. Optimists point to a growing middle class and increased high school and college graduation rates among U.S.-born Hispanics (see “The Hispanic Middle Class Comes of Age,” December 2001). The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the percentage of U.S.-born Hispanics graduating from high school climbed from 47 percent in 1979 to 62 percent in 1999. The college graduation rate climbed from 9 percent to 13 percent over the same period.
Education experts and successful Hispanics point to a wide array of factors in the K–12 years that indicate or contribute to educational and, consequently, career success among Hispanic students.
Leonard A. Valverde, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University, says one of the most important contributors to future success is having a teacher who believes in you. And that, unfortunately, tends to be uncommon among minority populations. Too often, he says, teachers underestimate minority students. Those students consequently are less likely to receive challenging work, and that contributes to lower performance.
Teachers and other adults who take an interest in a child’s life can play a huge role in shaping that child’s educational future, according to Mr. Valverde.
“If someone cares about the individual and provides as much support as possible,” he says, “that motivates them to develop the belief that they can be successful,” he says.
Rosie Flamenco, director of the LULAC National Educational Service Center in San Francisco, which serves Hispanic students in the San Francisco and San Mateo area, says she believes mentoring programs should begin as early as elementary school, because students tend to get “lost” as early as middle school.
“Students who don’t get the appropriate encouragement, students who don’t have high expectations from parents and teachers, tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to the high school system,” she says.
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