September 15 kicked off National Hispanic Heritage Month where our nation celebrates its rich and diverse history. The mid-month commemoration coincides with independence day observances for several Latin American countries — honoring the price of freedom.
As we pay tribute to the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino people in our nation it evokes the strength of diversity and the pursuit of the American dream.
President George H.W. Bush declared the 31-day period as National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1989, saying “Nurtured by their rich ethnic heritage and inspired by their faith in the principles upon which this country was founded, Hispanic Americans have continued to make their mark across the country and in virtually every aspect of American life.”
While history can help us recall the vigor of our nation’s heritage, it also urges us to continue to seek ways to propel us forward. There are several key insights from America’s story that can help contribute to the success of our future.
First: We must continue to provide equal education opportunities. Eight years before the historic Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, the Melendez family fought for equal rights for their children to go to school (Melendez v. Westminster). Nine-year-old Sylvia Melendez was turned away from attending a “whites only” public school.
Melendez’s father sought out a civil rights attorney who helped them win a class action lawsuit at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system. In 2011, Sylvia Melendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Melendez said her parents taught her “that we are all individuals; that we are all human beings; that we are all connected together; and that we all have the same rights, the same freedom.”
For several years, Latino students were the fastest-growing group of undergraduate students in higher education — currently making up 20% of college undergraduates. However, recent data from Excelencia in Education found the number of Hispanic Serving Institutions fell during the pandemic as Latino enrollment waned.
A study by Unidos U.S. and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that the cost of college, changes in personal finances and a desire to not take on debt altered Latino students’ higher education plans.
Nearly 70% of Latino undergraduates in higher education come from families in the bottom half of earners according to data by the American Council on Education. Data analyzed by Excelencia found that close to half of Latino students are the first in their families to go to college.
Congress and higher education institutions need to do more to provide funding for equal education opportunities for Latino students.
At Southeastern University (where I serve as president) we partnered with the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) to offer affordable and accessible education for more students in Hispanic and Latino communities. We are also working toward becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution.
Second: Cultural diversity needs to be celebrated and not diminished. America would not be the country it is today without the contributions of individuals from varying cultures and backgrounds. Data from the recent U.S. Census has revealed that our nation is more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before.
The second-largest racial or ethnic group in America is the Hispanic and Latino population, comprising 18.7% of the total population.
A key influential leader in our country’s history, Cesar Chavez once said, “We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community — and this nation.”
Chavez paved the way for improving the working conditions of farmworkers and helped found the United Farm Workers Association in 1962. Following the guidance of Gandhi, Chavez organized nonviolent protests, including the strike against California’s grape growers.
Whether it is at the local level of city celebrations or within our schools, we should continue to share the stories of individuals from all ethnicities and cultures who played key roles in making America what it is today.
At Southeastern, we marked National Hispanic Heritage Month by hosting a lecture series on the Latino church. We also announced that we received a $1 million grant that will enable us to partner with Hispanic churches and provide them with access to educational content and experiences that are innovative and relevant to their communities.
Third: We must continue to pave the way for the next generation to dream. As National Hispanic Heritage Month reminds us, there are many remarkable individuals who laid the foundation for others in politics, science, education, and business.
In 1989, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen made history as the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American elected to the U.S. Congress. Dr. Antonio Novello was appointed the first woman and the first Hispanic U.S. surgeon general in 1990.
Dr. Ellen Ochoa was the first Hispanic woman to go to space in 1993 and later became the Johnson Space Center’s first Hispanic director and its second female director. Ochoa once said, “I tell students that the opportunities I had were a result of having a good educational background. Education is what allows you to stand out.”
By highlighting the legacy of others, we demonstrate the opportunities that lie ahead and inspire the next generation. However, we must be vigilant to offer educational opportunities to make these dreams possible.
National Hispanic Heritage Month provides us the perfect chance to learn more about the incredible individuals who contributed to our nation. While we take the time to discover more about the history and culture of Hispanic and Latino communities, may we also continue to find ways to partner alongside them to create a better tomorrow.
Dr. Kent Ingle serves as the president of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, one of the fastest growing private universities in the nation. A champion of innovative educational design, Ingle is the author of "Framework Leadership.'' Read Kent Ingle's Reports — More Here.
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