WHITTIER — Cristina Obregon was classic college material when she graduated from Santa Fe High School in June, 1984.
In four years, she never missed the honor roll, qualifying for a statewide scholars group. After school, she served as treasurer at a church and worked part time to help support her mother. She had the grades, good citizenship--and she was Latino.
At a time when higher education was crying out for minority students, college counselors say Obregon was a sure bet for almost any four-year institution.
But she passed on the Ivy League and didn't bother applying to California's big-name campuses. Instead, she stayed close to home, choosing to enroll at Whittier College, a small, liberal arts school in the Puente Hills that has become a magnet for Latinos.
"It was important to go where I could get personal attention, where the student-teacher ratio was not 200 to 1," said Obregon, a sophomore biology major who lives at home and works several hours a week at Santa Fe High as a college adviser.
"I didn't want to get lost in lecture halls filled with 300 other freshmen," she said. "The personal touch at Whittier sold me."
Small Size, Support Services
Since the mid-1970s, Whittier College has had one of the highest percentages of Latino students among any of California's 123 public or private four-year institutions. Despite an annual tuition that now tops $8,000, Latinos like Obregon have steadily flocked to the century-old Whittier campus because of its small size, network of support services, a strong Latino alumni group and longtime administrator, Martin Ortiz.
The son of a Mexican who rode with Pancho Villa, Ortiz was one of Whittier College's first Latino graduates four decades ago.
Now in his early 60s, the charismatic Ortiz guides the college's Center of Mexican-American Affairs, a program credited by many, both on- and off-campus, with luring large numbers of Latinos to former President Richard Nixon's alma mater.
For years a predominantly white campus, the complexion of Whittier's enrollment changed dramatically after the center opened in 1968. Through Ortiz, the center has tapped private and corporate sources for tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for Latinos, many of them first-generation college students from low-income families.
And while the faculty remains largely white, the college today is roughly 20% Latino.
There are many cultural and economic barriers to enrolling minorities in private colleges.
The expense alone drives many Latinos to cheaper two-year community colleges, where 80% of all California Latinos in higher education are enrolled. Many elder Latinos view college as a threat to the family unit, taking their children away from home--perhaps forever, Ortiz and other educators say. Other Latinos simply need their children at home to care for other family members or to contribute money to the household.
In the past decade, Whittier College has successfully wooed the Latino community through its Mexican-American center, which serves all Spanish-surnamed students. By supplying scholarships, tutors and guidance, the center eases the transition from the comfort of a neighborhood high school to the unknown of a college campus.
In 1970, only 115 of the college's 2,078 students, or 5.5%, were Latino. But five years later, the percentage of Latinos had jumped to 16.8% or 185 students, while total enrollment had dropped in half. In 1979, a record 270 Latinos--roughly one-quarter of the college's undergraduate enrollment of 1,055--attended classes at Whittier.
Today, Latinos make up about one-fifth of Whittier's 1,050 students--the highest percentage among the 62 members of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities, a Sacramento-based coalition of four-year private schools.
"Educationally it is so critical to expose people with different backgrounds--both culturally and economically--to one another," said Allan Prince, executive vice president of Whittier College. "Otherwise the student body is too homogenous, too bland. Without diversity there can't be an honest exchange of ideas."
Prince and others point to the large presence of Latinos as evidence of Whittier's commitment to ethnic diversity. Other minority groups are represented in smaller numbers, however. Last year, blacks made up 4% of the student body and Asians about 4.5%.
Few Minority Faculty
Minority representation among faculty is also low, although improving, said William Wadsworth, acting dean of faculty and a professor at the college since the early 1970s.
In 1983 only six of the 79 full-time faculty members were minorities, including two Latino professors. Today there are 10 minority members on the faculty: three black, three Asian and four Latino, including two new Latino instructors hired this year.
While acknowledging that the college must improve the number of minority hirings, Wadsworth said it is difficult because the pool of qualified instructors with doctorates is small.