Universities collaborate to study a burgeoning Latino population | St. Louis Public Radio

Universities collaborate to study a burgeoning Latino population

Feb 12, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2010 - LThe Latino population in St. Louis continues to increase along with the number of university researchers who are interested in studying everything from attitudes about immigration to educational challenges facing the recent arrivals.

So it seems fitting that St. Louis University, Washington University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis are pooling their resources in an effort to further the understanding of the burgeoning Latino population both regionally and statewide.

The faculty-driven collaboration, called the St. Louis Coalition for Latino Research, began in earnest this fall. It has the potential to be a long-term project that encourages new research and helps attract Latino faculty and students to the region.

“There’s certainly a growing interest among faculty in Latino studies, and we’re hoping to collaborate rather than have people compete with each other,” said Joel Jennings, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Louis University. Jennings worked with J.S. Onesimo Sandoval, also a SLU assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, and Luis Zayas, a professor of social work and psychiatry at Washington University, to establish the coalition.

Sandoval, who studies demographic trends, said that because of its immense growth, the Latino population will increasingly become the focal point of research. (He said he’s aware of only one other regionally based collaborative of this kind in the country, and it’s out of Boston.)

“Part of what we’re trying to address is a demographic transition that’s taking place nationwide and specifically in Missouri, where Latinos are the fastest-growing population,” Sandoval said. “We can pinpoint that the metropolitan region of St. Louis is one of these regions where we will see a tremendous demographic transition over the next 10-20 years.”

The 2007 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau put the number of Hispanic residents in the St. Louis area at roughly 58,000. But it’s widely acknowledged that these statistics underreport the Hispanic population – an estimate often cited for both documented and undocumented Hispanics in the St. Louis region is between 80,000 and 90,000. There are about 170,000 Hispanics in Missouri, according to a population profile released several years ago by the Pew Hispanic Center.

One of the purposes of the St. Louis Coalition for Latino Research is to get professors thinking about studies that examine problems facing Latinos in St. Louis and across the state.

An example of research already being conducted through SLU is a study of Latino obesity in Missouri, which found that as income increases, so do rates of people being overweight. Another study looks at the diabetes rate among Missouri’s Latino population. There’s also research being conducted about the mental health implications of children whose parents are separated because of citizenship and deportation issues.

Sandoval is collecting demographic information about Latinos throughout the Midwest, and he hopes to create indices of where people live and where the most vulnerable, high-poverty pockets of Latinos are located.

Because professors who have signed on to the project have such varying interests, Jennings said, the idea is to encourage them to focus on their area of expertise and see how it fits into the big picture.

“A big part of the collaboration is going to be people doing the research that they are interested in independently but then drawing on the resources from other faculty members, grad students, projects and community groups that can use and apply this data in particular ways,” Jennings said.

The hope, he added, is to collaboratively leverage the ability to apply for grants that would allow for large-scale research projects. Much of the research will be available for public viewing on the coalition’s website, which is hosted by Washington University. Jennings said the plan is to also host guest speakers and allow people from surrounding universities to present research. The group is seeking funding from Washington U. and SLU.

Lisa Dorner, an assistant professor of education at UMSL who studies immigrant families and their connection to schooling, as well as school language policies as they relate to Latino students, said it’s exciting to be researching in a part of the country that hasn’t historically had a sizable Latino population.

“By getting out of our isolated environments and pooling our resources, we’re hopefully helping to increase exposure to some of these issues we’re grappling with” and that are affecting the Latino community, Dorner said.

Those involved in the effort also hope that they can help St. Louis universities recruit more Latino faculty members and students.

“St. Louis has traditionally not been a destination city for Latino researchers, and as such it helps for them to recognize that there’s a potential for collaboration," Jennings said. "People who share a vision and share some of same research interests can help persuade them to come to St. Louis."

Universities across the country have tried to attract more Latino students in recent years. A recent report from the Latino student advocacy group Excelencia in Education revealed that the number of institutions officially recognized by the federal government as “Hispanic serving” is set to rise dramatically in the years ahead.

Donald G. Brennan, dean of SLU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said he is interested in seeing more Latino students, particularly from the St. Louis area, come to the institution. He has also made a push to hire more faculty to study Latino issues.

Brennan is among the supporters of a proposed Latino Studies Center at SLU. He said having a campus home for professors interested in Latino research and students wanting to study such topics would help in recruitment efforts.

“It would be a statement of university support,” Brennan said. “If you’re serious about attracting Latinos and Latinas to the university, you have to have something visible” like a center.

Sandoval and Jennings are co-chairs of the working group at SLU that is proposing the campus center. Sandoval said research done through the center would largely focus on Missouri and the Midwest. It would also be a place where faculty could train students to research Latino issues. (The idea would be to offer a certificate in Latino studies.)

Sandoval said he likes the idea of, through the proposed center, bringing high school students to campus to get a sense of what college life is like. “The Latino population is often a Catholic population, so it is a natural bridge for us to try to encourage Latino students in the state to consider SLU,” he said.

The Latino Studies Center would be part of the tri-campus coalition. Washington University already has a Center for Latino Family Research. UMSL doesn’t have a center but has faculty members who focus on the Latino population.