Dr. Minita Ramirez is very familiar with the community she serves as she walks the campus at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo. She’s the Vice President of the Student Success Division, and connects with students in a personal way because she also attended the school—back when it was known as Laredo State University.
Another personal connection: She grew up in this southwestern city that sits along the U.S.-Mexico border. The experience formed her passion for helping first-generation Hispanic students succeed in their educational journeys.
Ramirez’ Early Career(s) Shaped Her Vision of Student Success
Ramirez spent the first 10 years of her career at the front of the classroom, teaching middle and high school students. In the decade that followed, she went to work for Simon & Schuster’s division of educational publishing, selling textbooks.
She says the career change offered her a new perspective. “It gave me a really nice and broad understanding of the academic world in a larger concept than just along the border where I had grown up.”
As she traveled throughout the Southwest and the South, calling on schools and districts, she became one of two bilingual consultants for the company.
“It was a huge organization and yet there were only two of us who were fully bilingual. It was a wide-open market in textbook publishing—especially along the Texas-Mexico border where bilingual education was, at one time, extremely prominent and I think today, still is,” Ramirez recalls.
Music: An Instrument for Translation—and Transition
During that time, she says she was fortunate to be able to also write lesson plans for music education and reading lessons—which led to her next role: Helping teachers teach ESL students to read in English. Ramirez instructed them to use music—a universal language—as a way to help students transition from their native language of Spanish.
“We presented information in manageable chunks,” she says. “We found that, through music, people were able to become passionate about learning the [English] language and assimilating into a culture. There was this acculturation along with the transition in language. So, then I really began to wonder, ‘What makes some high school students want to embark on a journey into higher ed?’”
A New Obsession: Where Are All the Hispanic College Students?
She was subsequently hired at TAMIU, tasked with increasing enrollment—which meant understanding what stood in the way of Hispanic students seeking college degrees.
Ramirez explains that when she and her colleagues looked at Laredo and the smaller towns surrounding it, they saw that Hispanics weren’t transitioning into higher ed in the numbers they expected. She says she became obsessed with the question, ‘Why aren’t they coming?’
Then, she received some important advice. A colleague told her that if she wanted to continue a career in higher education, she needed to earn a Ph.D. True to her nature, Ramirez didn’t waste any time finding a doctoral program that suited her interests. She enrolled almost immediately.
“I knew I wanted to set an example for excellence,” says Ramirez. But that wasn’t all. She also decided to focus her doctoral research on that burning question: What are the issues that Hispanic students face?
“I had to figure out why students weren’t coming, and I knew that if we could take the barriers off the table, there would be an easier transition. This was 16 years ago, but the basic barriers are still the same,” she adds.
Three Critical Barriers to Hispanic Student Enrollment
Initially, Ramirez found, through her research, that money was a huge issue for potential students. Every bit of research she completed in her doctoral coursework fed into this larger theme. After several years of researching why Hispanics were not embracing higher education, she narrowed it down to three very critical, issues.
“First, students didn’t think they could afford a college degree,” she says. “Next, they didn’t believe that they could compete, or do well, at college-level work. The third fundamental issue was that they did not have family support—because no one had previous college experience.”
Ramirez says she realized that if TAMIU could address those issues, it would not only be successful as a university but it would be successful as the greatest change agent for the entire region and accomplish the university’s mission, which is ‘to provide an underserved population with access to higher education and opportunities for success.’
When it Comes to Access to College, Money is the Root of the Problem
The university’s first-generation student population has decreased somewhat over the years because many potential students still don’t think they can afford to attend a four-year college or university, Ramirez observes. “The money issue is an ongoing dilemma.”
Part of the problem now, she adds, is that state funding has decreased for higher education—across the country. For example, Texas no longer funds the innovative B-On-Time program, which allowed students who graduated within four years to turn their loans into grants that didn’t have to be repaid. Ramirez says that with that program, “students had skin in the game.”
Trying to balance more and more program offerings with less and less funding is a constant challenge, she adds. Still, Ramirez and her colleagues at TAMIU continue to work at finding solutions for any issues that might get in the way of ensuring their students’ success.
In our next post, we continue our discussion with Dr. Ramirez to learn how TAMIU works to solve college accessibility issues for Hispanic students.