A community of support: Hispanic students talk about their paths to college

A Hispanic woman walks down stairs outside.

Two Hispanic students offer their advice for future generations navigating their college journeys.

Rafael Ortiz Jr. is a first-generation college student from Los Angeles. After watching several of his family’s businesses fail, he chose to pursue his bachelor’s degree before continuing on to University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, where he’s focusing on entrepreneurship – which is particularly useful since he’s the owner of Ortiz Jr Auto Repair.

When asked about his educational experience, Ortiz shared, “It’s been a challenging journey, and along the way, I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome. I’ve always been in survival mode, and my classmates often have an entirely different perspective that I haven’t experienced before. But my professors always remind me that I belong, and that my institutions didn’t accept me without reason. For future Hispanic students, just remember to be confident. It can be challenging to find that within yourself, but know that there are people rooting for you.”

Mariana Montoya’s parents came to the U.S. with nothing, looking for a better life for themselves and their future children. She is on track to graduate with a degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge in 2022. She believes that her Hispanic heritage and community played a large role in her path to and through college. She shared, “I grew up in this amazing neighborhood with people who were very influential in my life. Every single day, the matriarchs of our community would encourage me to do something that they didn’t have the chance to do – and education was naturally a part of that. For me, going to college felt like a way to give a voice to the community of people who came here to give me a better life.”

Advice for Hispanic students exploring postsecondary education

As future generations of Hispanic students navigate their options for postsecondary education, Montoya and Ortiz offer this advice.

Find a mentor

In his journey to college, Ortiz found that there were a lot of questions that he just didn’t know how to answer on his own – starting with how to pick a major. “I wasn’t really sure how to approach choosing a major,” shares Ortiz. “I knew I wanted to do business, but I didn’t know the difference between the different disciplines. Why should I choose marketing over finance? I just didn’t know what option would open up more doors for me.”

His biggest advice for future students facing a similar challenge is to find a mentor early on in their college career. Someone that you can ask the questions that you might be too nervous to bring up in other scenarios. Maybe consider someone who is already working in your desired field or a professor who specializes in your major. The biggest thing is to find someone who can give you an unbiased opinion and help guide you through those big decisions.

Let yourself be heard

As he looked around campus, Ortiz realized that he was one of the only Hispanic students in his program – and it gave him a sense of imposter syndrome. It was a feeling that he had to actively fight against, and for future generations, he thinks it’s important to continually find ways to engage on campus. That could be by joining a club or organization, or actively participating in class – but he points out, “It’s hard to feel like you belong without raising your voice and letting yourself be heard. So, speak up. Participate. It’s the only way to feel comfortable. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. That’s why you’re in school.”

Mariana has similar, but slightly more specific advice around how to get involved on campus. She suggests that every Hispanic student take at least one class focusing specifically on Hispanic history and culture. She recommends finding a class that’s most relevant to your heritage – so maybe finding a class on the Latin American experience, Spanish history, or Mexican-American relations. She points out, “It’s so important to know your history and to know a little bit about where you stand in this country. It gives you a lot of perspective and it helps you get to know yourself in a different way. It’s an eye-opening experience.”

Consider all possible outcomes

A recent study by Unidos U.S. and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that Hispanic students often choose not to explore postsecondary education because they either need to work, aren’t willing to take on educational debt – or both.1 In his experience, Ortiz finds that this research is correct – but he is adamant that Hispanic students understand that paying for college can be worth the financial investment.

He explains further by saying, “For a lot of Hispanic students, we just go with the cheapest option. We make the decision solely based on cost. Of course, who gives you the better financial package is crucial – but Hispanic students should take it one step further and consider which program can offer you the best opportunities after you finish. I think it’s important to understand that investing money in your education is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it can give you the career bump you need.”

As you consider the cost of continuing your education, make sure to explore what scholarships might be available specifically for Hispanic students. The Hispanic Scholarship Fund is a well-known organization that offers financial support for both undergraduate and graduate students. You could also rely on a scholarship database for additional options. Tuition Funding Sources (TFS Scholarships), for instance, has over 7 million scholarships in their database.

“You see that campus? We belong there.”

Ortiz’s auto repair shop isn’t far from USC’s campus – and he did that intentionally. He wanted to continue working while pursuing his degree, and it allows him to be there for future generations of Hispanic students who live in the neighborhoods around his shop. When they stop in, he makes sure to talk to them about continuing their education and tells them directly, “‘You see that campus? We belong there. Come on, let’s get you in there.”

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