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Pacific casa es su casa: Latino students settle in

By Jennie Rodriguez
Record Staff Writer
September 02, 2008 6:00 AM

STOCKTON - Bienvenidos (Welcome) Week helped Francia De Jesus acquaint herself with programs centered around her culture at University of the Pacific.

"I thought it was useful," De Jesus, 17, said. "I made a lot of friends."

The welcoming of new Latino students included a Wednesday tour of some Stockton hang-outs and a dinner at Cancun restaurant, where the students were introduced to Latino student leaders from Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups.

All this is part of Pacific's initiative to reach a growing Latino minority, to prepare students for working with the population and to expose the university's students to opportunities abroad in Latin American countries, said Margee Ensign, dean of Pacific's School of International Studies.

Dubbed the Inter-American Program, the effort started last academic year with increased recruiting activities, the development of programs for 2008 and the start of new groups, such as the Latino Student Council that organizes cultural events and the Latino Alumni Pacific Club.

As school started this week, the efforts intensified with the launch of programs such as Casa Covell, a Spanish-language immersion dormitory for American and Latin-American students. It is intended to help American students learn fluent Spanish from native speakers.

The Casa will be De Jesus' home away from home, while the freshman works on an international studies degree at the university.

"I chose Casa Covell because I wanted to relate to other students," said De Jesus, a fluent Spanish speaker who was born in Puerto Rico and lived in Pennsylvania prior to Stockton.

Casa Covell, spearheaded by professor Gene Bigler, is a sequel to Elbert Covell College, a former Pacific institution implemented during the 1960s, where Latin American students were taught in Spanish.

"We're building on what we did and making it more relevant for our times," Ensign said. Residents of Covell pledged Saturday to only speak Spanish in the living quarters.

"We're developing the future leaders of California," said Arturo Ocampo, assistant provost of diversity. Ocampo was hired by Pacific a few weeks ago to oversee diversity issues, boost enrollment of students from under-represented backgrounds, address barriers to diversity and raise awareness projects.

Ocampo came from San Jose Evergreen Community College, where he developed the college's first diversity program encompassing nondiscriminatory policies.

Also, the university created a Latino Outreach Coordinator position, occupied by Inez Ruiz-Huston, who is the former director of the Multicultural Affairs department.

Another program now being offered is the Inter-American Professionals Program, which certifies students in communicating professionally in Spanish. The program offers cross-culture training to students studying dentistry, law, education and other fields.

Roland Ernst, a second-year pharmacy student who will live in Casa Covell, signed up for the training this year.

"I want to help those who speak Spanish," Ernst, 19, said.

Ensign said the university has enhanced its joint degree program with more Latin American universities, as well as increased its internship partnerships with Latin American businesses.

"We live in an area where the Latino population is growing, and we need to respond to that and prepare ourselves in the classrooms," Ensign said.

Contact reporter Jennie Rodriguez at (209) 943-8564 or jrodriguez@recordnet.com.