Carla Garza, a senior at Wichita East High School, demonstrates a Mexican folk dance during the Latine Heritage Month Celebration at Wichita State University on Sept. 15.
Carla Garza, a senior at Wichita East High School, demonstrates a Mexican folk dance during the Latine Heritage Month Celebration at Wichita State University on Sept. 15. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Valeria Paunetto was torn between two identities when her family came to Wichita from Puerto Rico six years ago.

“I was at a crossroads where I had to ask myself if I wanted to assimilate and play the game — to not be myself and be who others wanted me to be. Would I be a cookie-cutter American, or would I stand with my identity as a proud Latina woman?” Paunetto said.

She chose the latter and makes sure people know she’s Puerto Rican wherever she goes. So when Paunetto started looking for a college, she wanted to find a campus with students who looked like her. She said she found that at Wichita State University.

“I walk around campus with pride as a Latina woman, because I’m just like anyone else,” she said. “I can do anything they can do, and they can do what I’ve accomplished, as well.”

Paunetto, a first-year student at the university, is not alone. Over the past decade, Wichita State’s Hispanic student enrollment has skyrocketed. If trends continue, it could lead to the school becoming the first state university in Kansas to be designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution.

More funds as Hispanic Serving Institution

Bobby Gandu, Wichita State’s assistant vice president for strategic enrollment management, said the university expects to pass 15% Hispanic enrollment sometime in the next year.

Reaching 15% will be a significant step in Wichita State’s long-term goal to reach 25% Hispanic student enrollment. That’s when it would gain a designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution. The classification, similar to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities designation, would allow Wichita State to apply for millions of dollars in federal grants. The university could then use those dollars to expand and support academic opportunities for Hispanic students.

Reflecting changing state demographics, four higher education institutions in Kansas — Donnelly College and Dodge City, Garden City and Seward County community colleges — have reached Hispanic Serving Institution status. But no public university in the state has yet reached that benchmark.

Gandu said Wichita State has focused on Hispanic communities around the state and region by having enrollment materials, programming and events in Spanish. The school also sends bilingual staff to talk with prospective students.

“Our overall pitch about Wichita State is its affordability, which is quite valuable for all students, but it resonates particularly with our Hispanic families, especially if they’re first-generation or from low-income backgrounds,” Gandu said.

Retaining Hispanic students at Wichita State

Research shows Hispanic students and other underserved students leave higher education at disproportionate rates, said Heba Madi, retention coordinator for Wichita State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. 

“Students of color do have what you might call the typical obstacles of higher ed in academics and finances and things like that, but then there are additional obstacles that then affect their academics, finances and the sense of community,” she said.

Hispanic students are more likely to be first-generation students or from low-income backgrounds, leading to more difficulties navigating financial aid or picking the right classes to graduate on time, Madi said.

Members of the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity sell elote — corn in a cup with Mexican cheese and spices — at Wichita State University’s Latine Heritage Month Celebration on Sept. 15. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

At Wichita State, multicultural student organizations like Sigma Lambda Beta and university-sponsored groups like Adelante Scholars — a new scholarship group for underrepresented students — help Hispanic students find structure in their college experiences, Madi said. That leads to better retention rates.

Retention efforts have also included targeted mentorship and first-year courses, which provide a better foundation for Hispanic students and other minorities to build on throughout their college careers.

Hispanic students’ deber

During Wichita State’s Latine Heritage Month Celebration on Sept. 15, Josue Uriarte and other members of Sigma Lambda Beta were fundraising by selling elote — or corn in a cup with Mexican cheese and spices. A piñata was hanging on a tree behind them and aguas frescas, churros and quesadillas were being dished around them outside Rhatigan Student Center.

It’s small things like the elote that help campus feel like home for Hispanic students and bring broader awareness and acceptance of Hispanic culture, Uriarte said.

“We bring a lot of food,” Uriarte joked. “But we bring our culture. We show who we are, and I think it’s easier to do that at a college campus. People are more willing to explore and try new things, like elote or paletas.”

Valeria Paunetto, a first-year student, chose Wichita State University in part for its Hispanic student population so she could walk on campus ‘with pride as a Latina woman.’ (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Building an inclusive culture and educating others on diversity isn’t Hispanic students’ job, said Armando Minjarez, coordinator of student diversity programs for the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

“But just by being here, they’re providing people different perspectives in how they see and understand the world,” he said. “And that’s important, right? To have a community that’s thriving, welcoming and inclusive.”

To Paunetto, being a Latina college student is about demonstrating campus pride in her culture and also a deber, or a debt, owed to the communities they come from and the students who will follow in their footsteps.

“It’s a responsibility with our families, to show that we’re not like society tells us we are,” Paunetto said. “We are a lot better than those stereotypes or microaggressions, and we can do better than what they’re telling us. We can do anything.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.