RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The National Hispanic University was created more than 30 years ago, to educate first generation college students from Latino backgrounds. Next year, financial troubles will force this unique college to close its doors.
NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji paid a visit and has this story.
SHAREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: In California's Silicon Valley, in the shadow of the East San Jose foothills, sits NHU. All the classrooms and faculty offices fit in one modern three-story building in the heart of a working-class Latino neighborhood. But the old post-war elementary school, right next store, used to serve as the institution's hallowed halls.
MICHELLE PELAYO OSORIO: I came with my mom and we walk into an elementary cafeteria - literally, the benches, the tables and everything. And my mom is like: This is where you want to come to school? And I said, well, let's give it a chance. Let's see what it's all about.
MERAJI: Fifteen years ago, Michelle Pelayo Osorio was a senior in high school when she walked onto that elementary school campus in her East San Jose neighborhood.
OSORIO: I lived on the east side for, like, all my life. Was like, what is this?
MERAJI: She says she was curious but had her post-graduation plan set: get a two-year degree from a community college and then a job. A four-year university wasn't on her radar. She was a C-student, her mom had only taken a couple of college courses back in El Salvador; her dad didn't make it to high school in Mexico. And..
OSORIO: We didn't know how to pay for it. And there was just all this fear installed upon at least the Latino culture where I grew up. And it was like, we can't afford it so why even consider it.
MERAJI: But Pelayo Osorio says the President of the university came out to talk to her and her mom, in Spanish, and erased that fear.
OSORIO: Dr. Cruz comes in. I mean you're talking about a six-foot high tall man, looks like a quarter back, and starts giving you the spiel of what NHU can do.
MERAJI: The National Hispanic University was the brainchild of the late Roberto Cruz, a bilingual ed pioneer in California with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Cruz grew up in a barrio in Corpus Christi, Texas. He went to college on a football scholarship and was the first in his family to get a degree. He was convinced Latinos would eventually be the largest group in California and he worried about their prospects.
GUADALUPE CRUZ: Hispanic students were dropping out of high school, were not being successful, and those that were being successful had little access to higher ed.
MERAJI: That's Cruz's widow Guadalupe. We spoke at the public library named for her late husband just blocks from NHU. She says it was his life mission to get as many Latinos into higher ed as possible. Particularly the average, the one's she says college recruiters and high school guidance counselors ignore.
CRUZ: That's a person. That's a person with a life story. That's a person that needs an education.
MERAJI: Guadalupe Cruz is a lifelong educator who built NHU alongside her husband, and says it's based on historically black colleges and Jewish universities. And they wanted a bilingual, bicultural environment with small class sizes. Not a big state school where you're lost in the crowd.
ADRIANA JACQUEZ: A school like this, it makes you feel like you're still at home.
MERAJI: Adriana Jacquez is a senior majoring in Liberal Studies. She calls herself the guinea pig of her family - the first to do many things, like go to college. Now she's a member of what might be NHU's final graduating class. Jacquez grew up in East San Jose and says she chose NHU because it's close to home and the faculty and students are basically family.
JACQUEZ: A majority of people who are just like me, that we're trying to get through school, we have full time jobs - two to three jobs. Some of us are parents and we support each other a lot.
MERAJI: Jacquez is a pretty typical NHU student. She gets grant and scholarship money to help pay for tuition that's around 1,000 a year. The university - which is private - has always had a hard time staying in the black because most of its students need financial help. And after its founder, Dr. Roberto Cruz, died of cancer in 2002, it got even tougher. Everyone says he's the guy who could make a billionaire look at an old elementary school and see a first-rate college.
Billionaires like Silicon Valley real estate mogul, John Sobrato.
JOHN SOBRATO: His hands were like baseball mitts and he just had an engaging personality. And he was the type of person you couldn't say no to.
MERAJI: Sobrato funded the three-story building that houses the university today. But the long-time board member says the money problems persisted and selling the non-profit university to a for-profit company, four years ago, was a good option.
SOBRATO: We were always in the red. And, frankly, I got tired. The rest of the board got tired of writing checks.
MERAJI: Sobrato says the buyer, Laureate International Universities, poured millions into NHU and created online courses to entice students who could pay without financial help. But due in part to it's new for-profit status, the school lost federal and state grant eligibility for Liberal Studies - one of its most popular majors. A huge financial blow that was hard to recover from. Laureate cut its losses and the school will close its doors next year.
GLADYS ATO: It's been hard.
MERAJI: NHU President and Provost Gladys Ato doesn't blame her employer. And says they're doing the best they can to get students who aren't graduating this year into other programs. But she's says it's been an emotional time.
ATO: And every single person has such a unique story as to why they came here. Having to go through that process of trying to understand what this means for them in the future, how they will carry on legacy, it's a tough process to go through.
MERAJI: Alumna, Michelle Pelayo Osorio, the C-average high school student we met at the beginning of this story, she ended up going to NHU, was the first in her family to graduate from college and both her sisters followed her there. Pelayo Osorio is now the chief of staff for a politician in Santa Clara County. And she holds a masters degree in Public Administration.
OSORIO: It's bitter sweet just stepping in on campus here and not being able to feel like you're going to come back again and see the same people, or to encourage another student to do what I've done. You know? It's very hard.
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MERAJI: She says some of her fondest memories are of getting a college education in an elementary school in her neighborhood, eating Mexican popsicles to stay cool on hot days because there was no air conditioning. She says yeah, it may not sound like much but NHU changed her life.
Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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