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After Decades, A University By And For Latinos Will Shut Its Doors

The National Hispanic University sits in the shadow of the East San Jose foothills in a working-class Latino neighborhood.
Shereen Marisol Meraji
The National Hispanic University sits in the shadow of the East San Jose foothills in a working-class Latino neighborhood.

The National Hispanic University was created more than 30 years ago to educate first-generation college students from Latino backgrounds. Next year, the only school of its kind west of the Mississippi will close its doors.

NHU sits in the shadow of the East San Jose foothills in California's Silicon Valley. All the classrooms and faculty offices fit in one modern three-story building in the heart of a working-class Latino neighborhood. But the postwar elementary school right next door used to serve as the institution's hallowed halls.

"I came with my mom and we walked into an elementary school cafeteria, literally: the benches, the tables, everything," says Michelle Pelayo Osorio, about her first visit to NHU 15 years ago. "My mom said, 'This is where you want to come to school?' And I said, 'Let's give it a chance; let's see what it's all about.' "

Pelayo Osorio grew up on the east side of San Jose and was curious about this scrappy university, which was leasing space from an old elementary school in her neighborhood. But she says she had her post-high school graduation plan set, and going to a four-year college wasn't part of it. She wanted to get an associate's degree from the local community college and a job. Pelayo Osorio was a C student. Her mom had only taken a couple of college courses back in El Salvador; her dad didn't make it as far as high school in Mexico.

"And we didn't know how to pay for it," she says. "There was all this fear instilled upon the Latino culture, or at least where I grew up: 'Oh, well, you can't afford it, so why even consider it?' "

But Osorio says the president of the university came out to talk to her and her mom — in Spanish — and erased that fear: "Dr. Cruz comes in. I mean, you're talking about a 6-foot-high man, looks like a quarterback, and he starts giving you the spiel of what NHU can do."

The National Hispanic University was the brainchild of the late Roberto Cruz, a bilingual ed pioneer in California with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Cruz grew up in a barrio in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he helped his family out in the summer months picking cotton. He went to college on a football scholarship and was the first in his family to get a degree.

Convinced that Latinos would eventually be the largest group in California, Cruz worried about their prospects. "Hispanic students were dropping out of high school, were not being successful, and those that were being successful had little access to higher ed," says Cruz's widow, Guadalupe. That was 40 years ago; today, Latinos face similar challenges.

We covered that here on the Code Switch blog earlier this month:

"According to a report by the Pew Research Center, only 56 percent of young Hispanic students go to four-year schools — while, for non-Hispanic whites, the same figure is 72 percent. For blacks and for Asian-Americans, those numbers stand at 66 and 79 percent, respectively."

Guadalupe Cruz says it was her late husband's life mission to get as many Latinos into higher ed as possible — particularly the average students like Michelle Pelayo Osorio, the ones whom she says college recruiters and high school guidance counselors ignore. "That's a person. That's a person with a life story. That's a person that needs an education."

Cruz built NHU alongside her husband and says it's based on Jewish universities and historically black colleges. They wanted a bilingual, bicultural environment with small class sizes, not like a big state school where you're lost in the crowd.

Adriana Jacquez, a senior, says it worked: "A school like this, it makes you feel like you're still at home."

Jacquez grew up in East San Jose and says she chose NHU because it's close to home and the faculty and students are almost family. "A majority of people are just like me. We're trying to get through school. We have full-time jobs — sometimes two to three jobs. Some of us are parents, and we support each other a lot." She calls herself the guinea pig in her family — the first to do many things, like go to college. Now, she's a member of what might be NHU's final graduating class and will be getting a B.A. in Liberal Studies.

Jacquez is a pretty typical NHU student. She receives scholarship money to help pay for tuition that's around $10,000 a year. The university, which is private, has always had a hard time staying in the black because most of its students need financial help. And after its founder, Roberto Cruz, died of cancer in 2002, it got even tougher. Everyone says he's the guy who could make a billionaire look at an old elementary school and see a first-rate college. Billionaires like Silicon Valley real estate mogul John Sobrato. "His hands were like baseball mitts, and he just had an engaging personality," Sobrato says of Roberto Cruz. "He was the type that you just can't say no to."

He funded the three-story building that houses the university today. But the longtime board member says money problems persisted, and selling the nonprofit university to a for-profit company, four years ago, was a good option at the time. "We were always in the red, and frankly, I got tired, the rest of the board got tired of writing checks," he says.

Sobrato says the buyer, Laureate International Universities, poured millions into NHU and created online courses to entice students who could pay without financial help. But due in part to its new for-profit status, the school lost federal and state grant eligibility for liberal studies, one of its most popular majors. It was a huge financial blow that was hard to recover from. Laureate cut its losses, and the school will close its doors next year, although there's talk that the credential program might merge with another university and stay in tact.

NHU President and Provost Gladys Ato doesn't blame her employer and says they're doing the best they can to get students who aren't graduating this year into other programs. But she says it's been an emotional time. "Every single person has such a unique story as to why they came here, having to go through that process of trying to understand what this means for them in the future, how they will carry on legacy. It's a tough process to go through," says Ato.

Alumna Michelle Pelayo Osorio, the C-average high school student we met at the beginning of this story, ended up going to NHU. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and both of her sisters followed her there. Pelayo Osorio is now the chief of staff for a politician in Santa Clara County and holds a masters degree in public administration.

"It's bittersweet just stepping on campus here," she says, struggling to hold back tears. "Not being able to feel like you're going to come back again and see the same people, or to encourage another student to do what I've done, you know? It's very hard."

Pelayo Osorio says some of her fondest memories are of getting a college education on an elementary school campus in her neighborhood, eating paletas (Mexican ice pops) to stay cool on hot days because there was no air conditioning. She says, yeah, it may not sound like much — but NHU changed her life.

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Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.