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  • gina garcia

How can undergraduate students make meaning of the HSI identity?

The HSI designation is a federal construct. In other words, becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution is simply a matter of enrollment as defined by the federal government. For HSIs, the magical enrollment number is 25% Hispanic/Latinx students. There are a few other requirements, including having a “needy student” population as determined by the number of students eligible and receiving Pell grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, work study, and Federal Perkins loans. But for the most part, being designated as an HSI is based on the demographics of the students that an institution enrolls, per federal legislation.



Two students working on a computer
Two students working on a computer

The HSI identity, however, is a way for HSIs to become Latinx-serving beyond the federal enrollment requirements. The HSI identity can become a central, distinct, and enduring way that the campus makes sense of the way it serves, supports, educates, honors, values, and empowers its Hispanic/Latinx and low-income students. To enact an HSI identity goes beyond enrollment to include the structural ways that colleges and universities operate and deliver education, from the mission and purpose to the curriculum and support services, to the decision-making and governance, and extended to communities and families of the students. To enact an HSI identity is organizational, and it includes all members including faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

Yet students are often not invited to the table to discuss the ways that the institution can embrace an HSI identity.

Students don’t necessarily choose to attend an HSI because it is an HSI. They haven’t seen HSIs on TV or in movies in the same way that they may have seen Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on TV and in movies such as A Different World, School Daze, Drumline, and Stomp the Yard. And when Beyoncé dropped Homecoming on us in 2019, I’m sure applications to HBCUs went up. Although they are fictional portrayals of life at HBCUs, they matter to future college students’ understanding of what it means to attend an HBCU. Until Latinx students have a series of TV shows and movies to watch that portray HSIs, they will have to make meaning of the HSI experience on their own, in real time, while attending HSIs.


Students Inside a Classroom in the University
Students Inside a Classroom in the University

Image: Pexels photo by Yan Krukov.

Many institutions allow the grant seeking and grant implementation work to drive their servingness praxis, which can exclude student input and feedback if students are not invited to write and implement the grants. Students are often served by HSI grants in a variety of ways, whether it be through programs, services, and courses that are funded by the grants, or interactions with faculty and staff who undergo training and development to become better servers for Latinx, low income, and other minoritized students. But they may not be asked to provide input before the institution pursues or implements these grants. Moreover, students are not necessarily asked to make sense of the emerging HSI organizational identity. Even in my interactions with HSIs as a speaker, trainer, and consultant, I rarely get to work with students.

But students should be a part of the HSI identity making process. Shouldn’t they?

So how can we invite students to make meaning of the HSI organizational identity?


  1. Offer a first-year seminar that focuses on what it means to attend an HSI. First-year seminars often have a specific focus, why not make the focus HSIs? In this course, students can read the extensive body of literature about HSIs, including the books, journal articles, practice briefs, and newspaper articles written about HSIs. There is sufficient knowledge about HSIs for there to be a course about them. But more importantly, the course should have assignments that allow students to create new knowledge about HSIs through their assignments. The assignments can be creative, allowing students to produce art, poems, music, written and spoken word, and so many other forms of knowledge about what they think it means to attend an HSI.

  2. Integrate participatory action research (PAR) projects about HSIs into existing courses. PAR is a creative way for students to learn how to do research in innovative ways and to construct a better world for themselves, their families, and their communities. PAR can also be integrated into any course, so faculty across campus can help students make meaning of the HSI identity through their own disciplines. Similarly, undergraduate research programs can integrate HSI meaning making into their existing structures. This can also push faculty to be more creative about servingness as they grapple with what it means to teach and mentor students at an HSI.

  3. Talk about what it means to be an HSI at first year and transfer orientations. And for bonus points, talk about what is means to be an HSI at family orientations, especially those that are offered in Spanish and intended to better serve Spanish-speaking Latinxs parents. Orientations are a way to welcome new students and families into the institution and to teach them about the institution; if the institution is truly committed to being an HSI, why not teach students and families about this identity from the start? This is also a good time to stress that being an HSI does not mean “exclusive to Latinx and Hispanic students” as that is not the intention of HSIs. Dispel myths about HSIs early and engage students of all identities in the meaning making from the start.

Overall, it’s important to acknowledge that the HSI identity is as elusive as any other racialized identity. Students, families, and community members will attach meaning to it, regardless of how much you try to hide it from them. Engaging students in the HSI meaning making process is an opportunity for HSIs to become proud and unapologetic about this identity. And maybe one day an alum of an HSI will write and produce the first TV show and first movie about the HSI experience. If that is not an indicator of servingness, I don’t know what is.