Vanderbilt University may not seem like a likely place for a Latino/a Studies Program. It has a steep tuition of nearly $42,000 (a total cost of $61,112 if you factor in on-campus living), a student body whose population is only 8 percent Hispanic and it is located in Nashville, where the demography indicates a similarly small Hispanic population.

Yet the university launched its program this fall, joining nearly 433 other higher education schools that offer Latino/a Studies Programs. That translates to nearly 7 percent of the post secondary schools in the country – a steadily increasing number that suggests administrators and academics think that a key to their success lies with Hispanics.

“We are confident Vanderbilt is a leading institution but in order to round its offering it does need to embrace Latino studies,” said William Luis, director of the Latino/a Studies Program at Vanderbilt University.

The programs of today differ wildly from the Chicano and Puerto Rican studies of the 1960s and 1970s. While those programs were largely born out of activism, often led by students, the more recent programs cropping up are inspired by faculty, with less of an outreach on community and empowerment and more of a desire to tap a growing demographic – both to increase diversity and to turn out much needed research.

Some of the early programs have married the academic movement of today to the social changes they were rooted in, such as the one in Berkeley College in California, which is now known as the Chicano and Latino studies.

“There have been many Chicano studies scholars who have resisted the shift from Chicano to Latino studies,” said Frances Aparicio, director of the Latina and Latino studies program at Northwestern University.

She said that pioneer Chicano studies professors had concerns that already scarce funding would be appropriated by wealthier universities who didn’t have strong ties to communities, leaving open the possibility of neglecting the very communities they study.

But some scholars and students say Chicano studies programs, which were born during the labor protests and civil rights movement of the 1970s, say it no longer reflects the mindset of millennials.  

Some Chicano studies programs have seen a decrease in enrollment. In a report by KPBS, San Diego State didn’t reach its enrollment target in spring this year. Some students told the paper they didn’t identify with being Chicano.

“Students in many cases don’t identify as Chicanos, as did the generation that created this department,” Isidro Ortiz, a long-time professor, told the station.

Latino studies programs, however, are growing at such a fast pace that here is a move to get scholars to come together and share their work and visions at a conference in July, the first ever for this field.

“In the last couple of years, there have been a number of community colleges asking for help in setting up programs,” said Lourdes Torres, professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University, who compiled and counted the number of schools offering such programs. “It’s not just four-year colleges, it’s two-year programs reaching out asking for help.”

Though pan-Latino programs may be greater in number than its activist precursors, scholars say that resources aren’t always available for the programs. Because it is interdisciplinary, professors can come from other departments which can limit the funding and autonomy that some programs get.

At Vanderbilt, the program only recently launched, so it will take time to see how it expands. But the initial months, professors there say, were successful.

They were planning to offer graduate courses next year, but the demand became so great they are right now organizing course work. Luis, the program’s director, said the idea took root in 1997 but it took years of groundwork and dialogue with administrators to get the program off the ground.

He said his vision would intertwine Latino studies into medicine and law.

 “We do have a budget for this semester but our needs are going to grow very rapidly,” he said. “I am hoping they are convinced that it is in their best interests to put money into this program to allow us to have broader reach.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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