The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Had a Dream of Freedom and Opportunity For All: His Legacy to Our Hispanic Students

By | August 28, 2013

Fifty years ago today, a quarter of a million Americans gathered in our nation’s capital to enjoin our country and our government to live up to a dream; a dream articulated so movingly by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in his iconic speech. Reverend King and the brave, passionate, and committed marchers who joined him galvanized a nation to action—and long-standing barriers that prevented millions of Americans from fully participating in America’s promise began to fall.

Americans of all races, colors, and creeds are the beneficiaries of the American Civil Rights movement, of which that historic march was a part. For our nation only becomes richer when we welcome and celebrate the rich diversity of cultures from which Americans descend.

One of the six core values of Georgia Regents University (GRU) is “Inclusivity,” whereby the institution and the university community commit to ensure that we not only have diverse bodies of students, faculty, and staff, but that we also ensure the engagement of these individuals in the life and future of our university … and consequently our state and our nation. GRU’s growing population of Hispanic students is testament to the distance we have traveled to realize this value.

The number of Hispanics in the U.S. grew more than 45% from 2000-2010; in Augusta the increase was 37% over about the same period. With the median age now at 27.4 years compared to 36.8 years for the U.S. population as a whole, Hispanic growth has substantially impacted kindergarten thru high school (K-12) enrollment. According to a recent report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the number of Hispanic students in metro Atlanta public schools rose by more than 100,000 between 2000 and 2012. As a result of these demographic changes, an increasing number of Hispanics have begun to pursue higher education in our state and in our community.

According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Hispanic undergraduates at American universities and colleges numbered 2.5 million in 2011-2012, accounting for 15 percent of the total U.S. undergraduate population. A little more than half of these students attend two-year institutions; the proportion enrolled in 4-year private and public universities has been increasing. At GRU, the Hispanic population on our combined campuses rose 43 percent between 2008 and 2012, and has doubled over the past decade. It is important to note that a substantial number of Latinos enrolled in a college or university are the first in their family to go to college; in 2011, it was more than 40 percent.

Our students are finding success in a wide variety of programs of study. For example, the graduating class of 2012 on the Summerville campus included Hispanic students in Speech and Communication, Computer Sciences, Education, Foreign Languages, Business Administration, Finance, Marketing, and History. On the Health Sciences campus, the 2012 graduating class included Hispanics in Pharmacology, Dentistry, Oral Biology, Dental Hygiene, Nuclear Medical Technology, Respiratory Therapy, Nursing, Nurse Anesthetist, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Physician Assistant, Medicine, and Public Health. Traditionally, Hispanics have been under-represented in the health professions, and efforts to increase access to these career options are a nationwide priority. Clearly, this is beginning to be fulfilled at GRU, although much remains to be done.

But access to a university education is not the only factor that we must consider. Students must not only have the ability to attend but must also be able to successfully graduate. GRU has several organizations that support our Hispanic students’ success through academic enrichment and engagement; among them are Los Amigos, the Hispanic Student Dental Association, the Medical Spanish Club, and the Peru Society. Additionally, our students participate in numerous Study Abroad Programs that provide the opportunity to visit Spanish-speaking countries and serve to reinvigorate familiar cultural experiences. Locally, our students volunteer at many community-based activities focused on serving the increasing needs of the Hispanic community, including la Clínica Latina and la Asociación Latina De Servicios Del CSRA (ALAS).

The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” refer to a very diverse group of peoples. Hispanics originate from more than 20 countries where Spanish is the official language. At GRU our Hispanic students originate from 10 of these countries, a source of cultural enrichment for our university and local community. We encourage all of our students and employees to participate in Augusta’s annual Hispanic Festival, and we sponsor a multitude of activities during fall’s National Hispanic Heritage Month; last year’s included traditional Hispanic dancing (Salsa, Tango, and Zumba), cuisine, and a blood drive. (More Hispanics have the very critically needed O or “universal” blood type than any other ethnic group in the U.S.) Overall, we are looking forward to greater participation by our Hispanic community and students in the exciting and growing life of our university.

At GRU, we remain committed to inclusivity, and welcome students, faculty, and staff from all cultural backgrounds to our campuses. Today, we join millions across the nation to celebrate Reverend King’s – and our nation’s – dream of limitless opportunity for all Americans.