More Latinos are attending college today than ever before. From 2000 to 2015, the number of Latino college students in the United States doubled to three million students. As of 2018, 28 percent of young Latinos have at least an associate’s degree.

Those numbers certainly bode well for an underrepresented community that keeps growing everyday. But college-going Latinos are still vulnerable to the adversities and disparities that students of color face at predominantly white institutions. A 2017 New York Times study revealed that even with affirmative action, enrollment of Latino and Black students continues to lag at top universities. At Harvard, only 13 percent of the student body is Latino, while white students make up 52 percent. 

The numbers do speak volumes on the current state of higher education for Latinos, but even as they reach those institutions, the struggles remain. Some students cite discrimination from peers and faculty, lack of council support, and cultural barriers as some of the most pressing issues facing Latino students. “I have had to field various micro-aggressions, comments about my major, and a general feeling like I don’t belong,” Rosa Elena López, a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, tells me. At one point, she even considered transferring schools – that is, until she made friends with other Latino students. “We bonded culturally, of course, but also because they uniquely understood my struggle to stay afloat at this PWI,” she adds. “None of the white students could have understood what I – we – were going through.” 

Meanwhile, other Latinos I surveyed revealed they felt enormous pressure from being the first in their family to attend college. “The expectation was always that I was to set a good example for my generation in our family,” says Valeria Carrillo, who is the oldest of three siblings and the first to attend college in her Ecuadorian-American family. “It was this expectation that fueled my desire to pursue higher education.”

While there are good reasons to attend a predominantly white institution and occupy spaces that once shunned Latinos, there’s no handbook on navigating these universities for our communities. The best guides are peer-to-peer recommendations from people who thrived and survived the self-segregation, discrimination, and pressures of being a Latino student inside a majority white college.

I talked to six Latinos on their experiences and learned the best ways to flourish at a PWI. Here’s what they had to say in their own words.


Don’t be afraid

“I did my own thing, commuted to school, worked 30 hours a week, went to school full time and graduated. [I] enrolled in grad school right after I finished my undergrad and worked full-time as a high school teacher. Now, I am in my second year of my [Doctor of Education ], still working full-time, still pushing. My one tip would be to not be afraid and always remember the big picture. To remember that you are just as capable and deserving to be there.” -Valeria Carrillo, 28

Find a support system

“I would have to say the most important is finding a support system and community.  There is nothing quite like meeting people from a similar background as you, who have also faced similar challenges. Lastly, I would say to take care of your mental health. College is already a stressful, trying time but this can be complicated when coupled with being an underrepresented student. It is imperative that you take time for yourself in the midst of [it] all. Utilize your school’s counseling and health services if you feel you need them.” -Rosa Elena López

Jameel Andrews, Joana Amicar and Lianabel Amaro prepare to graduate from the New Jersey National Guard Youth Challenge Academy in Trenton, N.J., August 29, 2009. The program identifies New Jersey youth who have dropped out of high school and using military style training aim to enhance the life skills and employment potential Photo courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Be suspicious

“Racism is deeper than we think, as this election proved. Be suspicious, in the appropriate way, and evaluate those around you; how they speak to service staff, professors of color, and other students. The thing about white culture is that if you go back far enough, it’s hurt all of us. You don’t have to forget that to move on and grow. Americans will always see themselves as the standard, so don’t let yourself wash out … or [get] sucked into a weird dom/sub relationship with race. You’re more resilient, you’ve faced more, you’ve survived on the outside and you will continue to survive. They couldn’t hack it. But you can.” -Pablo Escobosa, 23

Practice self-love

“My top tip is to practice radical self love and celebration. Be as loud as you want about your Latinx identity. Proclaim in all the ways you exist, and you exist beautifully. I found the harder I went in nurturing that self-love of my Latinx identity, the easier it was to dispel the voices that came in my head from impostor syndrome being at [a] PWI.” -Nic Lopez

“Be as loud as you want about your Latinx identity.”

Don’t expect others to understand your struggle

“Self-care is important, the micro-aggressions are everywhere. You need to find some way to de-stress and stay focused. You might be the first one in your family attending college; be aware that sometimes your white classmates might not understand all of the struggles that you had to go through to be here. Being around so much white privilege can weigh on you. Just breathe and power forward.” -A.J. Carmolina, 30

It’s OK to not have it all figured out

“Honestly, your first couple of years you may feel like you have no direction or that you haven’t found your purpose and that’s OK. Time, experience, and your personality will guide you. If you’ve been there for three years already and still haven’t figured it out, it’s OK. Check in with your counselor from time to time and ask what it is you need to do to graduate, how many classes or what classes do you need to take to get your diploma. This is why it’s important to create those meaningful relationships, because even if at the end you aren’t sure of what to do with your degree, you have a large and solid network of people that can help you get started.” -Gabriela Mejia Cervantes, 25