CONWAY It’s more than 1,300 miles from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Conway, but the distance doesn’t bother University of Central Arkansas junior Melisa Carbajal.
The interior-design major made the move three years ago to attend college at the same university her older sister attended.
“I came to visit her once before she graduated two years ago,” Carbajal said. “I knew I wanted to come [to UCA], too.”
Carbajal is part of a growing population of Hispanic students at the university. In fall 2011, 273 UCA undergraduate students self-identified themselves as Hispanic, up from 248 in fall 2010.
“I felt really welcome by everyone in the states,” said Carbajal, who now volunteers with a group to help get international students settled on campus. “You’ve just got to get out there and meet people and not stay in your room. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
University representatives hope other Hispanic students get the same feeling about the campus as the school continues to increase its minority-student recruiting efforts. Ron Patterson, who is director of undergraduate admissions, said the emphasis is based on the increasing Hispanic population across the U.S., including in Arkansas.
In Faulkner County — home to UCA — the percentage of residents who described themselves as Hispanic or Latino more than doubled over the past decade, census data shows. In 2010, about 3.9 percent of Faulkner County residents identified themselves as Hispanic, up from about 1.8 percent in 2000. Similar jumps in population have been seen in cities across the state.
“Our goal as an institution is to educate the best and brightest across all races and ethnicities,” Patterson said. “We’ve seen an increase in the Hispanic population in the state of Arkansas, and we’d like to tap into that. There are individuals that are highly qualified and should be in [a university]. … It’s a natural progression.”
Patterson said the university has begun exploring additional scholarship opportunities for Hispanic students, as well as developing a Spanish-language recruiting publication to help students and parents who may still be working to learn English.
Last year, the university hired Mirtila Lovelace, a 2011 UCA graduate from Honduras, to head recruiting efforts in the Dallas area.
“She’s a dual-language admissions recruiter and is really going to help get our name out to potential students [in Dallas],” Patterson said. “Dallas is a huge source of potential that hasn’t been tapped, and we have a large population of UCA alums in that area.”
The university is also working to bring Hispanic students to campus through social events, including today’s Amigo Cup Soccer Challenge. Now in its third year, the event was created in 2010 as part of the school’s Mexican Bicentennial activities. Last year, the event drew a crowd of more than 800.
“The event got a great response, both in attendance and the teams really enjoying it,” Gary Roberts, dean of students. “We at the university are looking to attract more Hispanic and Latino students to the campus, and we decided to keep it going.”
This year, six men’s and three women’s Hispanic soccer teams from across the state will compete. The day will also include food vendors, campus tours and Spanish-language radio stations doing live broadcasts. The tournament will begin at 9 a.m. today at the Bill Stephens Track and Soccer Complex near Donaghey Avenue and Dave Ward Drive. The event is expected to last until around 5 p.m., with the women’s final match starting around 3 p.m. and the men’s final match starting around 3:40 p.m. Admission is free.
Carbajal has attended the tournament every year, and she and her friends were eager to come back for this year’s event.
“It’s a very inviting environment,” Carbajal said. “There were a lot of Spanish speakers around, and interpreters for people who couldn’t speak much English, so language wasn’t an issue. Everyone felt so welcome.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.