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Beyond recruitment: How Metro State, other colleges help immigrants find success

Minnesota’s colleges and universities employ a variety of strategies for helping students who might be overwhelmed by the demands of college life.

Photo by Anne Hodson
Julio Vargas-Essex

At Metropolitan State University, students who show signs of struggle in the classroom can expect an email or phone call from the administration – part of a “just-in-time” retention strategy designed to reach students on the brink of falling behind.  

It’s an approach that recognizes the unfamiliar and often intimidating terrain on which many students find themselves, especially immigrants and refugees who may be the first people in their families to attend college.

Indeed, decades after Somalis, the Hmong and other newcomers began diversifying the state’s classrooms, Minnesota’s colleges and universities are focusing on ways to ensure that those students succeed once they get through the door.

“That is a challenge – not only with us but with higher education, in general,” said Julio Vargas-Essex, the admissions director at Metro State, a multicampus urban university in the Minnesota State system.

With main campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Metro State has long attracted newer immigrants and refugees. (This fall, 48 percent of its student body consisted of students of color – though how many of them are from immigrant or refugee groups is not tracked).  

‘Multiple platform plan’

The university uses a variety of strategies – what Vargas-Essex calls a “multiple platform plan” — to help its students. Besides its proactive communication system, for instance, the school created a food pantry after recognizing that many students were struggling to buy groceries. “Every time we get a food shipment,” he said, “there is a line outside of our office.”

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Schools employ many ways of helping students who might be overwhelmed by the demands of college life. For example, many (including Ridgewater College, where many Somalis and Hispanics take classes and where this reporter teaches) use an “early alert” system through which instructors can notify academic advisers, at the first sign, about students who are having trouble.

To be sure, initiatives like those are designed to help any student, regardless of their cultural background. Yet some programs are specifically designed, at least in part, to reach students from newer immigrant and refugee groups.

College Readiness Academy

St. Paul College, a two-year school in the Minnesota State system, offers a College Readiness Academy for “New American” students (as the school calls them) or other students who are not quite ready for college-level work. Similarly, St. Cloud State University offers a summer Advanced Preparation Program to help first-year students, many of them from immigrant and refugee families, polish their academic skills. 

Moreover, some schools are trying to help students who are new to American culture develop a less tangible, yet crucial, ingredient for academic success: a healthy sense of place and identity. The idea is to foster emotional connections that can empower students from any cultural background.

One of the most popular events at St. Cloud State University, according to Shahzad Ahmad, the executive director of the school’s Center for International Studies, are Friday night gatherings devoted to cultural awareness; a recent African-themed night drew about 1,000 students of all stripes. 

“We want to help each and every group be proud of their culture, to have a strong self-identity and to be supported in who they are,” he said.

Along those lines, at Metro State, under an initiative that began last fall, new or returning students must complete a course related to racial issues – or show that they have had an academic experience elsewhere that broadened their cultural horizon. Vargas-Essex sees the initiative not as an extra requirement for students at a diverse school but as an essential part of contemporary higher education. 

“It’s not just beneficial for immigrant students, but also for white or more traditional students,” he said.  “A lot of institutions are trying to be global institutions, since that is the nature of our businesses and our organizations.  For us, we have that.”