UP, Where We Belong

A sociology seminar explores the Hispanic/Latino student experience on campus.

Emily Martinez-Villalobos was just a few months into her first semester at USC Upstate in 2020 when the pandemic hit and all her classes moved online.
As a transfer student, she hadn’t yet had time to make many friends and explore campus life. So when she returned to campus in 2021, she quickly connected with the Latin American Student Organization.

“Joining the organization and getting to meet everybody was really nice,” says Martinez-Villalobos, a first-generation college student. “I was able to find a community of people like me, people that have been through similar things.”

Finding out what makes a Hispanic/Latino student feel at home – and, by extension, what more the university can do to support that sense of belonging – was one of the motivating factors behind Lizabeth Zack’s senior seminar research class last spring. Zack, a professor of sociology, realized having hard data could help USC Upstate’s fledgling South Carolina Centro Latino (El Centro), of which she is an advisory board member.

“One of the questions that I asked was, how much do we know about our Latino student population on campus,” Zack says. “Because if we don’t have much, maybe our department could work on a needs assessment or a survey.”

Zack introduced her students to the topic during the 2021 fall semester, when they learn research methods. The class read up on national trends involving Hispanic/Latino college students, and heard from El Centro’s director and assistant director, Araceli Hernández-Laroche and Maria Montesó, respectively, about the importance of following these trends.

“In the Southeast, like a few other regions in the country, the Latino population is growing the fastest,” Zack says. “And Latino college students have also in recent years been the fastest growing college student sector. But there are also some disparities in retention and graduation rates.”

In the spring, students moved to the project phase, developing a survey to administer to Hispanic/Latino students around campus and collecting and analyzing the data. Giles Rabideau ’22 says at first the group was disappointed when their initial efforts to collect data yielded a low response. Zack reached out to Martinez-Villalobos, who helped spread the word among friends and campus clubs to encourage participation in the survey. While the outreach took time, it had greater success getting results.

Each student looked at a specific aspect of the Hispanic/Latino experience that could affect student success. Amy Saine ’22 studied factors that influence graduation rates. In the literature reviews, the data showed Hispanic/Latino students had significantly lower graduation rates than all other racial or ethnic groups, Saine says. But that was not the case at USC Upstate, she notes, though the reason for that matched what she had seen in the literature.

“We found that family was a huge motivator for staying in school, or completing their degree, or both,” Saine says.

Though many students cited challenges to being in college – finances, mental health, balancing school and work – Zack says most indicated they were on track to graduate within the timeline they had set for themselves, usually four to six years.

“One thing we saw among the students who participated in the survey was that they were relatively strong academically,” Zack says.

She cautions that the sample size – about 20% of USC Upstate’s approximately 350 self-identified Hispanic/Latino students – may be somewhat self-selective. Students who are motivated academically may also be more likely to respond to a survey. Still, the results were encouraging, particularly since about 70 to 80% of the respondents were first-generation college students, Zack says.

Zack says another interesting finding that differed from the existing literature concerned language barriers. In many of the studies, challenges with English created a barrier to students feeling a part of a campus. At Upstate, language wasn’t a problem for the survey respondents, but they did report that their family members felt left out of their student’s college experience.

“That was one of the recommendations, to provide more bilingual services to families,” Zack says.

Rabideau says when the class made its final presentation, the interest and questions they received from faculty validated the effort they had put into the project.

“The buzz around it speaks to its value in my eyes,” he says. “This is the first study on this topic, and could lead to more studies that help staff here at Upstate cater to the target population and help them be more successful.”

Zack’s fall semester seniors recently completed a new survey to build on the work from spring. This time the students examined the challenges and barriers confronting Hispanic/Latino students. The group took a qualitative approach, conducting in-depth interviews either in person or virtually. The sample size was small, but respondents identified financial struggles, balancing coursework and home life, and a sense of belonging as the biggest obstacles they faced.

Zack’s class also suggested areas where the university could help, such as reaching out to students to offer tutoring help or providing more opportunities for students and their families to socialize together. The group recommended connecting with high school students, too, to prepare them and their families for what to expect in college and to help them with the application process.

Hernández-Laroche says Zack and her students have demonstrated how universities can utilize the resources they have to gather valuable insights about their students. At Upstate, that data helps El Centro improve its outreach efforts to current and prospective students and their families, she says.

“Everything we do is really related to language, and they’re helping us with that mission on what language to use to make sure that we’re speaking to our students.”