University of Oregon education professor Edward M. Olivos grew up in California speaking English. He learned Spanish in the classroom, where he encountered the assumption that he must already know Spanish because of his Latino heritage. It’s one of the typical responses that Latinos in American classrooms run into every day, he said. Sometimes it comes with the suggestion that Latinos should not be allowed college credit for Spanish classes, because they have an unfair advantage.
Olivos—recently promoted to associate professor in the Department of Education Studies—is one of three UO researchers who presented their findings in April on “Being Latino at the University of Oregon: A Survey.” Funded by the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, this collaborative project focused on a university-wide survey of cultural and linguistic identities, ideas, and attitudes found among Latinos at the UO. The multidisciplinary research team also included associate professor Robert Davis and assistant professor Pedro García-Caro, both from the Department of Romance Languages.
“Since the year 2000, Latinos have accounted for more than half the overall population growth in the United States,” Olivos said. “Latinos are dispersed throughout the United States—they’re in society, they’re in public schools, they’re in higher university settings. For the sustainability of higher education, we really need to have access to Latino students. But what is the Latino path to the university? What does it mean to be Latino at the UO?”
Robert Davis, director of language instruction in the Spanish program at the UO, noted: “One of the things that really drove this survey is the current view that the Latino population at the University of Oregon is homogenized. In reality, it is complex and diverse. Students speak different languages, for example. They come from many different countries and regions.”
Of the 138 students who participated in the survey (16 percent of the UO Latino student population), the majority first spoke Spanish at home or Spanish with a combination of English. Currently, 49 percent speak English at home, 23 percent speak Spanish, and 27 percent speak a combination of English and Spanish. Nine students said their parents speak indigenous languages, Davis reported.
The survey looked at attitudes about Spanish language, with 90 students saying that they are proud of their Spanish-speaking background. More than 50 were uncomfortable that their Spanish isn’t proficient. More than 95 said knowing Spanish is an important skill. Like native English speakers who receive credit for university English classes, even those Latinos who speak fluent Spanish may wish to study Spanish grammar and Spanish literature, Davis said. “We are trying to change the model of deficiency. Our new focus is on developing as many areas of literacy as you can.”
The researchers found that the majority of the Latino students attending UO were born in California but graduated from Oregon high schools.
The survey also looked at the finances of a college education, asking questions about how students are paying for their education and what factors might prevent them from graduating. Sixty-three of 75 respondents said that financial hardship could keep them from obtaining their degree.
The survey also asked questions about discrimination—32 percent mention that they had felt discriminated against at UO. The question, “Have you ever had a Latino instructor at UO?” got a 56 percent “yes” response. About 88 percent spoke positively about recommending the UO to their Latino friends.
Among the questions and comments that arose from the audience were these:
• Let’s assemble a group of administrators to look at this in a conversational way.
• We hope that the university financially supports more research of this kind.
• This should be systematically administered to all Latino students, with surveys carried out both on entrance and exit from the UO.