It was a warmer welcome than they probably expected, and not just because of the 90-degree temperatures late Wednesday morning.
The teenagers entered Fort Hays State University’s McMindes Hall in groups large and small, hailed by a gauntlet of college students chanting, cheering and waving signs. Even FHSU President Mirta Martin joined in.
Approximately 100 youth from across Kansas and even some from Missouri and Colorado are in Hays through Saturday for the inaugural FHSU Hispanic College Institute.
The high school students will attend sessions on applying to college, taking the ACT, financial aid, areas of study and careers, and solving issues in their own communities.
But there will be plenty of fun, too, including a talent show and games. FHSU scholarships will be awarded in some of the competitions.
Friday is STEM day, which will include a high-altitude balloon launch, a speaker from NASA, and workshops on drones, storm chasing and roller-coaster building.
While it is a recruitment tool for FHSU, organizers said that is not the main goal.
“We want to help students get to the next level, whether that’s Garden City Community College, Johnson County Community College, Wichita State University, or we hope, Fort Hays,” said Joey Linn, vice president of student affairs.
Yessenia Gonzales, an FHSU sophomore from Elkhart, volunteered to be a student “lead” at the institute. Leads welcomed the students and are assigned to familias, groups of the institute participants.
“When I heard about it, I was like, ‘I want to be a part of this. I want to be part of this family,’ ” she said.
Gonzales’ mother was the first in her family to attend college, so the elementary education major said she understands why the students need a mentor.
“I want these Hispanic young boys and young girls to know college is an option for them,” she said. “It may be hard, it may not be something that you think your parents don’t want you to do, but it’s very important.”
Many of the students at the institute, like Ashley Medrano, Topeka, would be the first in their families to attend college.
“I want to see how everything works out with students in the dorms,” she said as she waited in line to check in.
For Jorge Lopez of Kansas City, it was his first visit to Hays. He said he was excited about attending and looking forward to learning about FHSU’s nursing program.
Without the support of parents or other relatives who have been to college, the so-called “first generation” students can find navigating the process a deterrent to furthering their education, organizers said.
Martin lived that experience herself. She immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a child and was raised by her grandmother, who told her “education is the great equalizer.”
“Going to college was a goal I always held, but it was a goal that seemed to be an insurmountable mountain,” Martin said. “I didn’t know where to begin, even how to sign up to take the ACT.”
Martin credits a high school teacher with helping her learn how to explore colleges and fill out forms, gestures that helped her get to where she is today, she said.
While working in higher education in Virginia, Martin founded the HCI and knew when she came to FHSU two years ago she wanted to bring it here.
“When I came to Kansas, I learned that 14 percent of the population is Hispanic, and that, not unlike the national trends, the Hispanics are falling behind in their pursuit of higher education as a population,” Martin said.
In many cases, Martin said, Hispanic students are encouraged to stay home after graduating high school to become a part of a family business.
“In the short run, it meets the needs of the family. But in the long-term, we’re hurting ourselves,” Martin said.
She emphasizes statistics in a 2013 report by Georgetown University that said by 2020, 65 percent of the jobs in the United States will require at least a two-year degree. In Kansas, it will be 71 percent, especially in health care, social sciences, education and STEM-related fields.
“I knew that we needed to do something to say to the fastest growing population in Kansas not only should you go to college but you must go to college. But those are just words,” Martin said. “We need to have the programs, the outreach, to say we will walk with you. The HCI is designed to do just that.”
At the opening ceremony Wednesday afternoon in the Memorial Union, Martin welcomed the students in Spanish.
The keynote speaker was Sonia Esquivel, who told her life story of going from teen mom to Latina with a PhD in an emotional mix of English and Spanish. She earned an associate’s degree in nursing from Garden City Community College, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FHSU, and a doctorate from Kansas State University.
She is now a counselor and assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
The institute will conclude Saturday with the parents of many of the students coming to campus for a reception with Martin, along with brunch and an awards ceremony with the students.