Hispanic Heritage Month with NAU’s First Latinx president

NAU president José Luis Cruz Rivera listens to the deans of NAU colleges share their vision of NAU at the Honors College, Feb. 19.

After converting to online classes for a year, students have returned to campus and found a new president — one who made history. NAU has welcomed its 17th and first Latinx President, José Luis Cruz Rivera, giving the university plenty to celebrate during Hispanic Heritage Month. 

Hispanic Heritage Month officially begins on Sept. 15, and runs until the same day in October. According to Institutional Resource Analysis, Hispanic students accounted for 25% of NAU’s student population as of 2020, a number that has slowly increased each year. In 2019, Hispanic students comprised 24% of the student body, up from 23% in 2018. 

According to the United States Board of Education, a university qualifies as a Hispanic-serving institution when Hispanic students make up 25% of the full-time student population. After NAU achieved that percentage in 2020, it officially reached the benchmark of Hispanic-serving institutions, also recognized by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. This allows the university to apply for grants that benefit Hispanic students seeking higher education. 

Prior to being elected president, Cruz Rivera was executive vice chancellor and university provost for the City University of New York’s 25-campus system. His tenure at NAU began June 14. 

“It feels like an affirmation of not only the opportunities that are afforded to Latinos in this country but also the willingness of an established institution of higher education to embrace the lived experiences that a Latino president can bring to bear upon its future,”Cruz Rivera said. 

Cruz Rivera said he has plenty of plans for his tenure at NAU, in addition to supporting Hispanic students in K-12 schools. This demographic often faces adversity due to cultural differences between student and teacher. Even though Arizona has a Hispanic population of 31%, according to Pew Research Center, these students lack representation in the classroom. 

Mariella Espinoza-Herold, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Specialties, wrote a book highlighting challenges Latinx students encounter in the American education system: “Issues in Latino Education: Race, School Culture, and the Politics of Academic Success.”

“Latinos are numerous, but we are underrepresented,” Espinoza-Herold said. “In all of the important careers in the United States, we need more access, social and educational equity. Sixty-five percent of teachers in Arizona are white.” 

In her book, Espinoza-Herold said she tells stories of what Latinx students endured in getting a college education, including a lack of representation. Further, she explained why some never reached this level, even though they were capable of doing so.

Not only is Latinx culture rarely taught in most curriculums,  these students are often discouraged from learning as a result of various issues, including language barriers and other difficulties in the classroom. Herold explained that some students grew up speaking Spanish — and learned English in school — but are not experienced enough to reach their full potential. Furthermore, some families are unable to participate in school functions, such as parent-teacher conferences, because of language barriers. These can be intimidating, she added, as some parents may not speak English and cannot comfortably communicate with their child’s teacher.

Teacher frustrations compound the issue because they only deter students from pursuing their education. However, NAU is capable of guiding these students in various ways, one of which involves its teaching program.

“We also have a deep responsibility with our K-12 schools … those that are serving large numbers of Latino students,” Cruz Rivera said. “There are a couple ways we exercise our responsibility on that front. One is that we are one of the top producers of teachers and school administrators in the state of Arizona.”

Cruz Rivera said he believes NAU’s teaching preparation and certification programs have a responsibility to ensure educators who come out of the university are prepared to serve the Latinx population in culturally sensitive manners. 

For students seeking education, the support of a teacher goes a long way. Encouragement from the community is also important, and NAU has various clubs to educate students on different cultures and celebrate their diversity. One such organization is the Latinx Student Union (LSU).

LSU invites Latinx students to get involved in the community, as well as offering a support system in navigating through higher education. LSU president and senior Jocelyn Cuevas said the organization is excited NAU has its first Latinx president. She said she believes this will open the door for Latinx students to have additional opportunities, as well as provide more support to their community. 

LSU is working to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month around the university. The club planned activities for all of campus — not just Hispanic students — such as Lotería Bingo Night on Sept. 22 and a discussion with the Ethnic Studies department  about Latinx history on Sept. 30.

The club is doing more than celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, as it meets every Tuesday and hosts special events all semester. It educates students on Latinx culture and current events, as well as being receptive to all who wish to learn more, 

“It’s open to everyone; people don’t need to know Spanish or be Hispanic,” Cuevas said. “We would love to share everything with everyone, [and] we don’t want anyone to be left out.” 

Even though September begins the transition from summer to fall, it also encourages the community to learn, celebrate and understand Hispanic tradition and heritage. Latinx culture is prevalent at NAU and, even in the face of adversity, these students work hard to seek a higher education. With the Flagstaff community supporting this vibrant culture, more of these students will have the opportunity to succeed each and every year.

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