It took months for her homesickness to ease and the benefits of life in a new city to become apparent. But Jeanny Fuentes said she now has few regrets about leaving Los Angeles and her close-knit family to attend college nearly 3,000 miles away.
By enrolling at Boston College, the 18-year-old freshman became part of a national trend in which Latinos are increasingly attending colleges farther from home.
That is bending some cultural traditions but creating what education experts say is a significant and often welcome demographic change to college admissions across the country.
"It’s very important to stay out of your comfort zone," said Koreatown resident Fuentes, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador. "If you are just stuck in one place, how can you learn from that? It’s important to learn and grow."
Since 1975, the share of Latino freshmen at four-year colleges who choose schools more than 50 miles from home has risen to nearly 59% from about 46%, and the share who attend such colleges within 10 miles of home dropped to 15% from 30%, according to a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. At the same time, the proportion of white freshmen who went away to school stayed unchanged, at about 66%.
The researchers say the change is partly the result of growth of the Latino middle class and a rising educational confidence among children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Another factor is that many colleges and universities, especially in the Midwest and New England where local populations are shrinking, are stepping up recruitment of college-age Latinos in California, Texas and Florida. And some are offering increased financial aid.
At Boston College, for example, undergraduate admission director John L. Mahoney said his school in recent years has boosted its recruiting of Latinos in the West and has succeeded partly because the Jesuit school has special appeal to Roman Catholic Latinos.
"The fact that they are more mobile is certainly encouraging to us," he said, adding that the college is spending more on financial aid to enroll academically qualified Latino students who need the help.
Latinos make up about 10% of Boston’s current freshman class, Mahoney said. Since 2003, the number of California Latinos who applied to the school has doubled, to 386, and their numbers among the freshman class also doubled, to 33, he said.
Nationally, however, Latino students still lag other groups in high school completion and college-going rates. A 2007 U.S. Department of Education survey showed that 27% of Latinos ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college, up significantly from the 1980s but still low compared with whites, at 43%, and blacks, 33%. And of the Latinos in college, more than half are in two-year community colleges, compared with 36% of white students and 42% of blacks, according to federal figures.
Nevertheless, more Latino parents nowadays have at least some college experience of their own, and they are more willing and able than previous generations to loosen family ties and "help their children achieve the next level, a bachelor’s degree," said Sylvia Hurtado, director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. She is the coauthor of the 2008 report, "Advancing in Higher Education: A Portrait of Latina/o College Freshmen at Four-Year Institutions."
Hurtado said the recession may slow the shift to colleges away from home but "not enough to kill the trend."
The change is welcomed by Antonio R. Flores, president of the Hispanic Assn. of Colleges and Universities, a San Antonio organization of schools with significant Latino enrollments.
"It’s a healthy and good thing for young people to do, and I think Latino parents increasingly understand that reality," said Flores, who was raised in Mexico and attended graduate schools in Michigan. "Ultimately students who remain grounded in their home communities are deprived of the opportunity of learning about other places and other people and expanding their horizons."
Parents "are not giving up the old values entirely but are less apprehensive about that part of their children’s development," Flores said.
Ruth N. Lopez Turley, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said her research suggests that Latino students who go away to school earn degrees at higher rates than those who stay home for college and bear family responsibilities there. But Lopez Turley, who left her hometown of Laredo, Texas, to attend Stanford as an undergraduate, said such moves may come with financial and emotional drawbacks for the family.
"In general, it’s a good thing . . . but it’s not uniformly good for everybody involved," she explained.
The growing mobility of Latino students is a "very positive trend," said William McClintick, of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling. Colleges seeking to boost enrollments and ethnic and geographic diversity "want to tap into that population," said McClintick, a former president of the association.
Often the key is financial aid, he and other experts said.
Such assistance was important to Julio Suastegui, who graduated from Compton High School and is now a freshman at Colby College in Maine. A physics major and track runner, he went east with a hefty scholarship but no winter coat. In the beginning, he said, he felt homesick and awkward as one of a small number of Latinos at Colby, but he now enjoys college in New England.
Suastegui, 18, is the first in his family to attend college; his mother works in a clothing factory and his father is in Mexico, trying to resolve immigration problems. Latino families like his find it "very hard to let go of a child," said Suastegui, who says he phones his mother every other day.
"I feel personally I’ve gotten an entirely new experience, interacting with students who are not just geographically but also culturally different," Suastegui said.
Boston College freshman Fuentes, a Los Angeles High School graduate, traveled east after receiving grants from the college and a Gates Millennium Scholars award for high-achieving minority students. That aid took the burden off her father, who works as a valet parker, and her mother, a housekeeper.
After some family debate about whether she should leave California for college, the final decision was hers, and her parents were supportive during her initial bouts of homesickness, said Fuentes, who plans to major in Hispanic studies and possibly become a Spanish literature professor.
"It’s weird," she said. "The relationship with my parents is stronger now. I think the distance is what is bringing us more together."
So what would she advise this year’s high school seniors about leaving home for college?
"I would be very honest with them," she said. "I would tell them it’s not easy, but if you have the opportunity and don’t take it, you will regret it the rest of your life."