Jesús met up with me at his alma mater sporting running shorts and an acid wit. His friend, and fellow UT-Austin graduate, Tomás González, 23, is tall, thin, and thoughtful. He’s now in medical school. Perla de la O, 22, the only one of the four I taught directly, loves Harry Potter, musicals, and any sort of free festival she can find in Austin. She teaches at a Montessori preschool. And Eduardo Rios, 20, is still in school, studying business. He has a way of catching you off guard with thoughtful ideas you wouldn’t have given such a young man credit for understanding.
“It was a huge culture shock,” said Tomás of moving from Roma to Austin, where Latinos “are 20 percent at most. That’s the first thing I noticed.”
Statistically, there was a depressingly small chance that any of these kids, English-language learners from low-income families living in a rural town, would make it to and through college, let alone a college as prestigious as UT-Austin. Only 51 percent of low-income high-school graduates even enrolled in a two- or four-year-college in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s an ongoing discussion as to how many low-income students graduate, since the government’s first crack at calculating that number last year was way off, but the figure is estimated at between 24 and 68 percent, depending on the institution and whether students take four, five, or six years to complete their programs.
When you ask the young people from Roma what got them through, their answer is unequivocal: friends. And these friends are very serious about being friends. They even named their group “La Raza.” Literally, “la raza” translates to “the race,” but for most Latinos, the meaning is deeper.
“It’s like, ‘our people,’” Tomás said.
“Our gang,” added Perla. Though not a criminal gang, they hastened to explain, giggling a little.
“We just call it ‘the group,’” said Eduardo.
The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial-aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help. When they join other groups—fraternities, the Hispanic Business Association—they go to the first meetings with another La Raza member.
“We help each other with anything,” Perla said.
“You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”
Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester—that’s what gets you through, Tomás said. “We are missing a really important power,” he said of arriving on campus as first-generation students from a small town no one’s ever heard of. “Networking.”