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UI's Latino Studies program gaining momentum

BY BENJAMIN TOWAR | MARCH 24, 2015 5:00 AM

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After years of planning, the Latino Studies minor is underway and seeking to grow. 

In January, the University of Iowa started the introduction class for a Latino Studies minor.

History Associate Professor Omar Valerio-Jiménez teaches an introductory course for the minor with 10 students. The UI was the last university in the Big Ten to adopt a Latino Studies Program.

“The other Big Ten schools are starting to see the demographics changing and the population of Latinos increasing [in the United States], and they know that there will be more Latino students,” he said.  “Iowa was the last to see that.” 

At the conclusion of the spring 2014 semester, university officials approved the creation of a Latino Studies minor after several failed attempts at creating the program since the early 2000s. 

Currently, the Latino Studies program has two codirectors: Valerio-Jiménez and Claire Fox, a professor in the Departments of English, Spanish, and Portuguese. They are looking for a third. 

The UI’s Latino Studies minor is working with professors in other programs, including the Communication Studies Department, to attract more students to the minor. 

“We are starting small; it does not cost the university much money because the administrative staff is all here,” Valerio-Jiménez said, referring to the UI faculty members who are in other fields of study. “We start with a minor, then build student interest, and then see if there is administrative support for a bigger program, possibly a major, as a long-term goal.”

According to the UI student profile for fall 2014, Latina or Latino students make up approximately 5.6 percent of the student population. The U.S. Census Bureau reports Latinos made up 5.5 percent of the population of Iowa in 2013.

Indiana University-Bloomington has had a Latino Studies program for 16 years.

“I believe that it is really important to have Latino Studies grow in the Midwest because Latinos are settling in nontraditional areas,” said Sylvia Martinez, an Indiana associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies & Latino studies. “We are seeing populations in the Midwest sprouting out.”

Martinez, who is among the leading faculty members of Latino Studies at Indiana, said typically, in a Latino Studies class of 30 students, only six to eight of them are of Latino origin.

The University of Michigan’s Latino Studies program has existed for more than 30 years.

“It is correct to say that [the Latino population is growing], but it would be incorrect to say that they are new to the Midwest,” said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a Michigan associate professor and department head of the school’s Latino Studies program. “Latinos have been here for more than a 100 years.” 

The U.S. Census Bureau lists Latino populations accounting for 6.4 percent of the population of Indiana, 4.7 percent of the population of Michigan, and 16.5 percent of the population of Illinois. 

Both Valerio-Jiménez and Carla Gonzalez, a UI graduate student and an advocate for the minor, emphasized the importance of Latino Studies in a world of ever-changing of demographics. 

“A lot of people assume that ethnic studies are only for those who belong to that ethnicity, but what they need to realize is that it’s a scholarly field for everyone,” Gonzalez said.


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