By Melvin Félix @mj_felix
Students Issac Ortega and Manuel Félix entered the University of Arizona one year apart, but they shared one goal: to bring pride to their Mexican mothers.
Both were first generation students whose parents had not finished college. And even though they followed different pathways, before graduating, Ortega and Félix accomplished the same goal: being elected student body presidents representing more than 30,000 classmates.
This year, Félix replaces Ortega as student body president at the University of Arizona, where the number of Hispanic students has grown almost uninterruptedly for more than 30 years.
“The fact that he is the second consecutive Hispanic student body president is something awesome, and I believe there could be no better person for that office,” said Ortega, who handed over the office of student body president after graduating last May with a degree in business administration and economics.
This is a special event for the university, where one fourth of the students are Hispanic, said Kendal Washington White, dean of students and assistant vice president for student affairs.
“Who would have thought that the University of Arizona would have two Hispanic student body presidents in a row? I didn't think that would be something that would be happening in the near future,” said Washington White, who has worked at the university for more than 20 years.
“This is extraordinary and it makes me feel even prouder to work here.”
The University of Arizona has seen its Hispanic community multiply during recent decades. In 2014, the campus had about 9,000 Hispanic students, a figure five times greater than 30 years ago, according to figures published by the university.
For Félix, who has plans to graduate next year with degrees in political science and Spanish translation and interpretation, the idea of going to the university meant more than an opportunity to enter into a career. “Neither one (of my parents) went to the university, and that pushed me even harder to want to make them feel proud,” the young man said.
More and more Hispanics at the universities
During the past 25 years, the number of Hispanics in the United States enrolling in college has quadrupled, increasing from some 700,000 Hispanic college students in 1990 to 2.9 million in 2013, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.
More than any other ethnic group, Hispanics students in the U.S. are more likely to be the first ones in their families to graduate from college, according to an analysis from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Félix, who for 12 years grew up alongside his mother and grandparents in the Mexican town of Magdalena de Kino, is one of them. He still remembers how thrilled he was to enroll at the University of Arizona three years ago.
“From that moment on, I said to myself, ‘
Some day I’ll be student body president at this school.’ I promised myself starting in my freshman year. And it was something I fought for little by little, and I kept trying harder,” he said.
In 2014, one fourth of the students at the University of Arizona identified themselves as being Hispanic. Nevertheless, this figure had not always been reflected among representatives at the university.
“You don’t see many Hispanics getting involved within the university,” Felix said, “and that is something that was very intimidating to me at the beginning. But little by little you prove yourself and struggle more and try harder.”
Part of what motivated this young Hispanic to pursue the high office was knowing that Ortega, another son of Mexican immigrants, had succeeded in becoming student body president.
So excited to have officially been sworn into office! Can't wait to work with my executive team this upcoming year! pic.twitter.com/C9CNYi2l9C— Issac Ortega (@IssacAOrtega) May 1, 2014
A voice for his classmates
Going beyond being first generation university students, Ortega and Félix have stood out as leaders at a time when the University of Arizona faces million-dollar cutbacks in state funding.
Before Ortega had served out his term as student body president a few months ago, “what interested our students the most were conversations about the budgetary cutbacks at our university, and how they would affect the tuition they would have to pay,” he explained.
Arizona is the state that has cut back its higher education budget the most during the last seven years, according to
an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. And this year, Governor Doug Ducey and the Arizona legislature approved even more cutbacks, with a state budget that would decrease by $100 million the funds earmarked for public universities in the state.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to study in a state that does not value higher education as much as do other states,” said Ortega, who joined local leaders to fight back against the cutbacks, prior to the budget being finalized in March. “These large cuts in funding usually translate into large increases in tuition for the students.”
Ortega led a campaign toward the end of the semester aimed at having the University of Arizona allow all undergraduate students to pay the same tuition they had paid in 2014, thus avoiding the tuition hikes.
The university finally accepted by offering an extension program that guarantees a fixed tuition fee during the four years of study, and allowing students to pay a fee the same as that of 2014 until they graduate.
“All of this was thanks to Issac,” said Dean Washington White, adding that the extension resulted in savings for some students and their families, hundreds and even thousands of dollars annually. “He brought a systematic change that benefitted all students, particularly those with financial needs. I believe this program is his legacy.”
The dean added: “Manny has big steps to follow.”