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Latino pipeline to journalism, liberal arts drying up

By Joe Rodriguez:

(Photo by Kelly Chang // Mosaic Staff Photographer)

(Photo by Kelly Chang // Mosaic Staff Photographer)

Every new year should ring in lofty goals, not a sense of dread. But that’s how its been lately for a high school journalism program I help run in San Jose. We mail dozens of application packets to local high schools, visit classrooms in person, and beg journalism advisors to press talented students to apply. Every year it’s the same: We’re lucky if only a handful of Latino students turn in applications.

The Latino pipeline to journalism is drying up in high school and we can’t blame it solely all on campus journalism cuts or teaching to the test. I thought we were just bad recruiters until I spoke with two Latino professors at San Jose State University who see the same problem from another vantage point — fewer and fewer Latino students are majoring in the liberal arts or humanities.

“I can count on one hand the number of Latino English majors in my seven years here,” said Associate Prof. Magdalena Barrera, who teaches Mexican-American studies.

“I think they have a lot of pressure on them to major in something that is more practical, like business or engineering. They’re asking themselves, ‘What can I do with this degree?’”

Only 6 percent of Latino college students major in the humanities, Barrera said. That should raise a red flag for journalism because quite a few liberal arts and humanities graduates become professional journalists. With a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, I’m one of them.

The irony is that the Latino flight from the liberal arts is happening just as more Hispanics enter college. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic enrollment among 18 to 24 year olds at four-year colleges increased 20 percent from October 2010 (1.0 million) to October 2011 (1.2 million).

Carlos Sanchez is one of only four, tenured Latino philosophy professors in the United States. Every chance he gets, he talks up philosophy to Latino students at academic conferences and informal gatherings. He said they usually respond first with “puzzled looks.” Funny, I get the same looks when I visit high schools to talk about the wonderful world of journalism. Still, Sanchez soldiers on.

“I can say my batting average is .300,” he said, using a baseball metaphor for success in hitting. “I can tell you right off the bat that what you’re seeing is a symptom of something more menacing for Latino students in general.”

Now, journalists don’t usually look to philosophers to explain the news. Instead, we favor social and political scientists who churn out gobs of research numbers. But in the case of the endangered, young Latino journalist, I think Sanchez is onto something. Family hardships and economic anxiety don’t fully explain the flight of Latino students away from liberal arts (and, I would add, journalism). He sees something insidious — a modern, technological culture that values superficial information and snap judgement.

With the Mosaic Journalism Workshop, we thought we could make up for the slaughter of journalism programs in Latino and minority high schools by offering a high-quality, intensive summer program. Students don’t pay a dime. And it works.

Some 400 students have passed through Mosaic since its start in 1993. Our follow-up surveys show 14 percent of our alumni have become professional journalists. About 30 percent entered related fields that emphasize writing and communication, including public relations and teaching. Considering that we’re working with 16 and 17 year olds, that’s a pretty good success rate.

We knew going in that finding young Latino journalists for Mosaic was never going to be easy. Of the 11 public high schools in East San Jose, the Latino heart of Silicon Valley, most have skimpy journalism programs or none at all.

I remember a deflating visit to a journalism class at San Jose High School, the alma mater of Rigo Chacon, the dean of Latino broadcast journalists in the Bay Area, past CCNMA honoree and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Hall of Fame. The school today is predominantly Latino and working class. There were a few Latino students in the class but none were interested in Mosaic. For them, journalism was a “forced elective,’’ something to fulfill a graduation requirement. The instructor told me only one student was genuinely interested, an Indo-American girl.

So, we’ve resorted to asking English departments and yearbook staffs for good writers and photographers. That’s not working, either. After two decades, less than half of Mosaic participants have been Latino students, our target group, and they’re becoming more difficult to recruit.

Sanchez agrees that Latino students are bending to family pressure and economic anxiety to make “practical” career choices, but he thinks they’re deciding too early in high school and increasingly under intense peer pressure unleashed by today’s social media.

“Contemporary culture values the speed and quickness of information and the lack of attention otherwise necessary for contemplation, reflection, and well-thought out ideas that we’re used to in journalism and in the humanities,” Sanchez said. “Students, especially Latino students, who have witnessed the struggles of their parents and community, buy into the speed-apparatus and come to believe that their problems and crises will go away if they employ quick strategies for success–business degrees, engineering.”

One reason Hispanic students don’t take courses on Plato, he said, is because they check first with Twitter or Facebook and learn that their peers aren’t interested in Plato.

“So long as we don’t show them that journalism, philosophy, humanities are paths to success, and that success can be measured in many different ways besides who has the most followers, or the most money, then they will not major in them,” Sanchez said. “They will not spend the time, which seems to always be going faster and faster, in pace with material progress.”

Of course, today’s journalism can be equally wired, speedy and superficial. But Sanchez was talking about journalism at its best, when reporters are the first to get the news, sort through the confusing details or lies, and deliver the truth in a timely fashion. That doesn’t take long contemplation, but it does take critical thinking and good writing.

He said he’s not sure how to get Latino kids interested in Plato again, or Mexican-American studies or journalism, but it has to begin in high school or earlier.

CCNMA and a host of other minority journalism groups give away tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarships every year. But we have to ask ourselves what happens when fewer young Latinos apply for those scholarships? We could sit back and watch high-tech steal our best young writers, even if they aren’t cut out for writing code, and simply reward the few Latino students who manage to stick with journalism.

Saving journalism education in predominantly Latino schools will be much harder and more expensive than giving out scholarships. Still, there will be fewer Latinos seeking journalism as a career in college if we don’t offer those scholarships and programs, and the dream of having American newsrooms that actually reflect the makeup of this nation will become just a pipe dream.

— Joe Rodriguez is the CCNMA vice president for education and a staff writer with the San Jose Mercury News.

Comment(1)

  1. REPLY
    Michelle Morgante says

    Joe,
    I don’t think this is a new phenomenon so much as continuation of the status-quo. When I was about to leave college in 1990, I wrote a column about this very subject, lamenting the fact that I had spent four years at the college paper as the only Latina (or Latino person of any gender) on staff.
    In my case, I’d been encouraged by my Mexican-born mother to go to college to become a doctor or a lawyer, never a journalist. There was never a journalist among the professionals who spoke at my majority-Latino high school on career day. It had never even occurred to me that journalism was an option until I joined the college paper on a whim and realized that people actually made a career out of such work.
    My point is, the numbers of Latino students making it to college may be growing, but many of them are – like me – the first in their families to pursue a higher degree. The pressure on first-generation college students is to land a career that will be solid and financially stable, something more tangible than the rather esoteric-seeming world of media. To change that reality, we need to get to students early – middle school-age at least – so they can see that yes, Latinos can be journalists and journalism can be a career. But even more importantly, we need to reach the parents of young students. The parents need to see that journalism is an option for their kids. We’ll never find budding journalists in college English departments if those students never give consideration to a humanities major. We also need to look for students outside of the majors typically geared toward journalism. I was a poli sci major, for example. Students in all sorts of majors could be great journalists. We just need to find a way to reach them, wherever they are.

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