It was just a few days before the start of classes in September 2017 when members of the Latinx community at the University of Michigan learned that “the rock” in a small city park, just a short walk from campus, had been painted over once again.

This time, however, a message of welcome to returning Latinx students had been defaced with an incendiary message designed to hurt the community of Latinx scholars in Ann Arbor.

Within hours, the rock was once again repainted, this time by a coalition of students who restored the original message. The incident sparked a yearlong discussion of how to help the campus more fully represent the growing Latinx community and be more welcoming of all students, regardless of background.

That ongoing discussion — which continues today — has prompted action and new commitments to further explore future changes that students, faculty and staff believe will lead to lasting improvements. Among the initial steps are these:

• Inspiring members of the Latinx community to seek staff and faculty positions on the Ann Arbor campus.

• Inspiring Latinx students to enroll on the Ann Arbor campus.

• Increasing attendance at an orientation program for new students.

• Ensuring that there are sponsors available for La Casa, a Latinx student organization. The group became a Sponsored Student Organization this year, making the group eligible to receive charitable donations.

A team of 25 U-M students, faculty, staff and administrators have been engaged over the past year to map out a path forward for La Casa and the broader Latinx community.

Key campus leaders engaged in the process include La Casa student leaders Lesley Rivas, Yezenia Sandoval, Alex Mullen, Marissa Pruitt, Oscar Martinez, Dalia Harris, Jaiyanni Ortiz, Caiser Bravo, Marialaura Garcia, Yvonne Navarrete and Undergraduate Advisor Richard Nunn.

In addition, Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion Robert Sellers, and Catalina Ormsby, managing director of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good in the School of Education, who serves as La Casa adviser, also have provided key leadership.

“La Casa is excited to see the changes happening throughout campus as a result of the meetings with administration and various units,” says Rivas, an LSA junior and lead director of La Casa. “The urgency placed on Latinx issues at the University of Michigan is critical for the future generations of not only Latinx students, but our entire campus.

“An institutional commitment to being more inviting and inclusive acknowledges and is consistent with national trends and overall growth of the Latinx community. Already the experiences of our incoming students demonstrate support and increased inclusion, the hope is that future generations of students continue to benefit from a sustained commitment of change led by both our community and the university.”

“We commend La Casa student leaders for their strength of heart, courage and conviction,” says Harper. “Inclusivity and the celebration of all members of our U-M community are at the core of our mission, and conversations such as those we’ve had with La Casa go a long way in shaping our work.

“We’re grateful for that. While there’s more to be done, we’re heartened by the dedication of everyone involved in this important effort. We hope the results of our collaboration will inspire others to come to us and speak their truth.”

The growing number of Latinx staff

U-M saw an increase in the number of Latinx staff on the Ann Arbor campus from 433 in March 2018 to 459 in September 2018.

University Human Resources continues to work with campus units and departments to develop approaches for increasing the number of Latinx people who apply for and accept staff and faculty positions at the university.

In addition, UHR has added recruiting resources for campus units to the Recruiting for Staff Diversity website and encourages units to utilize existing DEI-related recruitment tools in every staff search.

Record attendance at orientation

The Assisting Latinx to Maximize Achievement orientation program this fall saw the highest attendance ever in its 18-year history, thanks to joint efforts by sponsors Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and La Casa.

ALMA was held off-site this year for the first time and introduced 69 first-year students — the largest cohort of students in attendance to date — to 41 faculty, staff and returning students, as well as resources to better assist them in their transition to campus.

Additionally, the Latinx Heritage Month planning committee, supported by MESA and in partnership with La Casa and other cross-campus units, kicked off the 2018-19 academic year with Latinx Heritage Month programming, which featured a series of 22 diverse events that took place in September and October. More than 200 students along with family and friends joined faculty and staff in attending the opening ceremony.

Photo of U-M students at the 18th annual ALMA orientation
U-M students attend the 18th annual ALMA orientation. (Photo by Hilal Bazzi)

The growing student enrollment

As the fastest growing ethnicity on campus — 5.64 percent of the student body, according to the Office of the Registrar — the Latinx community is gaining momentum and contributed to an increase in the number of underrepresented minorities in this year’s freshman class.

Underrepresented minorities make up 14.8 percent of the 6,403 new freshmen who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, up from 13.9 percent last year and 10 percent in 2014.

Enrollment figures tell a similar story with Hispanic (per the Office of the Registrar) U-M graduate and undergraduate enrollment overall totaling 6.2 percent, the highest percentage ever. Over the last four years, the percentage of Hispanic identified freshman students has risen from 5.9 percent in fall 2015 to 8 percent in fall 2018.

La Casa, alongside the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, has continued to engage with the U-M Latino Alumni and Professional Latino/as at U-M Alliance to seek recommendations for student outreach through the Wolverine Pathways program. The partnership will allow for additional relationship building between current students and potential Latinx applicants to the university.

La Casa is also working closely with University Housing Diversity and Inclusion, Auxiliary Capital Projects and other campus partners to renovate the Cesar Chavez lounge in Mosher Jordan Hall, part of University Housing’s multicultural lounge redesign. Work is expected to be done over the summer of 2019 and the lounge is slated to re-open in fall 2019.

Achieving SSO status

The La Casa executive board secured a Sponsored Student Organization designation agreement with the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good (School of Education) for the 2018-19 academic year. This accomplishment permits La Casa to accept tax-deductible contributions and receive university funding.

In collaboration with Student Life and ODEI, La Casa has also finalized a 2018-19 budget proposal for the student organization. Funding will provide programmatic support, enabling La Casa to sustainably address urgent needs within the growing Latinx student community.

“When I mention La Casa to faculty and staff, everyone is so impressed by the outstanding work our student leaders are doing,” explains Ormsby, the La Casa adviser. “They are being invited to leadership talks, to mentoring opportunities, to community and cultural gatherings, there is a lot of momentum and an increasing sense of belonging. I am honored to see La Casa continue to evolve while empowering our Latinx community.”

“It is essential to continue to be critical, continue to engage, and continue to hold each other accountable to create the change we want to see. We celebrate the many successes of our community made achievable by collaboration with University leadership, but we recognize there is still essential work that lies ahead to ensure the broader goals of inclusion and equity are being met,” Rivas says.