ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — Marymount University is the first higher education institution in the Commonwealth of Virginia to be designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Its Hispanic population makes up over 25 percent of the undergraduate student body.
When she took office as university president in 2018, Dr. Irma Becerra says Marymount’s Hispanic population was 17 percent of the total student body. Since she took office, she’s encouraged Hispanic students to enroll in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math classes, as she found they were enrolling at lower rates than their non-Hispanic peers.
“We have every focus here, not only in our STEM careers but even in our non-STEM careers, embedding technology and artificial intelligence in every domain that we teach,” Becerra said.
This semester, Marymount University also launched Avanzamos, or Moving Forward Together, a series of campus-wide programs that focused on issues facing the Latinx population in the U.S. and abroad. They’re also highlighting the successes of Latinx community members.
“Students see role models and what their future is going to be like once they have their degree and successful careers,” said Becerra.
Dr. Michelle Zalesky is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Marymount. Her class, called The American Dream, challenged her students to relate films and literature to their life experiences. At least eight of her students identify as Latinx. Some of them are Dreamers.
“I think oftentimes educational spaces can almost invite you to forget about your background,” Zalesky said. “And I think what is really beautiful about a place like Marymount is that your background, your diverse perspective, what you kind of bring into the classroom is encouraged and is kind of seen as an asset.”
During a presentation last week, her Latinx students shared their thoughts about “whiteness” and assimilation.
“Whenever you move from one country to another you are no longer considered a member of the community or the country that you left because you’re not there anymore,” one student said.
“If you’re Hispanic and you can’t speak Spanish, they look at you like, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s white or he thinks he’s better than us because he was born in America,’” another said.
The designation also means Marymount University qualifies for Title V federal funding, or five-year grants to enhance academic offerings and program quality, to spark more conversations like these.
“You see these students in turn become these really confident leaders who are willing to contribute to the community and make it a better place,” Zalesky said.