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Santa Rosa Junior College receives $2.8 million federal grant to bolster campus life for Latino students

“I think it reaffirms our commitment to the Latinx population and community,” said Robert Holcomb, dean of language arts and academic foundations.|

Thousands of Latino students who enroll at Santa Rosa Junior College each year soon could be attending an institution more attuned to their cultural and socioeconomic realities thanks to a federal grant some faculty think could transform their campus experiences.

SRJC received a five year, $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pay for a host of new programs designed to improve college completion rates and transfer rates for a demographic that now represents 38% of its student population. In 2012, Latino students made up 25% of the enrollment.

It’s the second federal education grant of this kind the college has received since 2014, signaling its growing reputation among Latino families, and its increased commitment to better serve them.

Robert Holcomb, dean of language arts and academic foundations, who will be directing the project, said the grant will help create targeted programs that increase education access and improve college readiness so Latino and low-income students are better prepared when they enroll in college courses.

“We know that they come to us with certain historical forces (behind them) — on average less prepared, fewer resources. There are certain underpinnings,” said Holcomb, who is half Mexican. “But they also come with certain assets, bilingual and bicultural. We’re trying to build a pathway for these thousands of students to be successful.”

The nearly 21,000-student college will craft a comprehensive program that would examine first- to second-year student retention rates, culturally adapt course material, increase access to tutors and mental health experts, and even change how employees discuss financial aid, according to its grant application.

SRJC also will draft a strategic plan for dual enrollment so more relevant and appealing courses are offered to Latino high school students before they attend college, Holcomb said.

“I think it reaffirms our commitment to the Latinx population and community,” he said, noting recent immigrants, students learning English as a second language and those in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, “who all want to fulfill the American dream.”

Roughly 45% of SRJC’s Latino students graduated in the 2018-19 school year, nearly 10% fewer than their white peers.

Laura Larque, a 40-year employee teaching history since 1995, said that disparity exists because ethnic students are forced to assimilate to a college system that wasn’t built with their specific needs in mind.

The so-called “Lanzamiento” grant program, named after the Spanish word for launching, will provide training and new techniques to enhance every layer of the college, Larque said, so students have a greater sense of cultural identity during their tenure.

“One of the reasons I have my culture well-established and strong is because I came as an adult,” she said. “I think ... students sometimes don’t have the cultural background, the knowledge of their history, the knowledge of their ancestors’ contribution to this country — not just economically, but politically and culturally.”

The “Lanzamiento” grant comes as SRJC navigates demands for greater equity from Black students who want to see a similar level of investment in their campus experience. Among the Black Student Union’s top demands this year to revive ethnic studies were calls for Black-oriented services that improve their sense of belonging.

The college’s ability to qualify for federal dollars is due to its designation as a so-called Hispanic-serving institution, with Latino enrollment at least 25%.

Holcomb was optimistic that building a more culturally aware college would help propel SRJC toward future programs that could give every ethnic group a greater sense of inclusion.

“I see this initiative as something that can help leverage or lend momentum to serving all populations,” he said. “Black, Latino, immigrant, queer, trans. This is momentum toward social equity in a broader sense.”

More than $492,000 of the grant is being allocated for the first year of the program, which starts Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is an advocate for the federal program that funded the grant. He said in a prepared statement he was pleased to see some of those dollars come back to his district.

“SRJC continues to be a beacon of hope for our community,” Thompson said. “I’m proud to celebrate this grant award.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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