Genaro Ruiz could easily have fallen short of becoming the first on his father's side, first on his mother's side, to go to college.
Money was tight when he started out 20 years ago, first at Rockhurst College and then at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A scholarship from the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Scholarship Fund made all the difference.
These decades later, Ruiz is a senior advisor to Kansas City Mayor Sly James, and more recipients of the Latino-focused scholarships are enrolled in higher education than ever.
The organizers of the fund that made such a difference for Ruiz see their role -- getting Hispanic students through college -- as critical to the Obama administration's goal of boosting higher education enrollment by 50 percent by 2025. So they've stepped up their nearly 30-year effort. And 21 area colleges and universities now promise to match the awards.
On Thursday, the fund passed out a record $350,000 to 229 award recipients based on academic achievement, community involvement, financial need and an essay. Four years ago the fund awarded $129,000.
It's a growing trend.
Last year the Lumina Foundation pledged $7.2 million in four years to promoting college education for Hispanic students. About the same time, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that the number of Hispanic students attending college reached an all-time high of 12.2 million in October 2010. From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of college students who are Hispanic rose from 9.5 to 12 percent.
The U.S. Department of Education says that the percentage of college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and African American has been increasing on campuses across the country for three decades. But Hispanic students are less likely to graduate.
"Recruiting is just the first step," said Stancia Jenkins, assistant vice chancellor of community and public affairs at UMKC.
Then mentoring becomes key. The fund is raising money to also track scholars through college graduation.
Patricia Barra of Grain Valley is a college junior who's been a recipient of the Hispanic scholarship the past three years.
"I've been lucky," said Barra, who plans to be a special education teacher once she graduates from UMKC. "Scholarship money helped pay for several hundred dollars' worth of books every year," she said.
Michael Flores, a graduate of the University of St. Louis, will attend UMKC dental school in the fall. He's gotten $4,000 in Greater Kansas City Hispanic Scholarship money and has still needed loans and other grants.
But when he graduates in 2016, he says, "I'll start my practice in Kansas City and give back to the city that supported me."
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