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A Simpatico Relationship

University of Idaho and state’s Latino population sustain each other through collaboration

The first time Irina Kappler-Crookston went to Jerome in southern Idaho, she was struck by the way the community supported the local Latino population. And vice versa. As chair of the University of Idaho’s Modern Languages and Cultures (MLC) Department in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, Kappler-Crookston initially visited Jerome in 2009 to better understand the backgrounds of her Latino students. After witnessing how the local Catholic community and dairy farms helped bolster migrant families, she wondered how UI could become involved.

Kappler-Crookston knew that the relationship couldn’t be one-sided. While the dairy farms in southern Idaho ensure stability for the Latino workers — who can live in one place rather than follow the harvests — “we wouldn’t be able to put milk on our table without them working on those farms.” She wanted to build a similar reciprocal relationship between the community and the university.

Kappler-Crookston, who is retiring this spring after 30 years with UI, traveled to Jerome several times to meet with the community and promote UI at the high school’s Latinos in Action Club. She still sees the residual effects of that outreach. 

“Since my first trip there, we’ve had a number of Latino students come from southern Idaho,” Kappler-Crookston said. “The children of these workers might someday be scientists deciding the nutritional value of the food cows are eating. They will be our future veterinarians. Their parents worked on the farms, but my dream is that these students take the leadership role in the sciences.”

In pursuit of this goal, Kappler-Crookston received a grant from the Micron foundation in 2013 to coordinate a STEM-related bilingual summer camp through Head Start in Jerome. The grant also funded a study on Hispanics and STEM education, which was published by UI’s James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

Latinos make up one of the fastest-growing population groups in Idaho, comprising 12 percent of the total population in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and account for a quarter of the state’s recent growth. According to the study, only 43 percent of Idaho’s Hispanic fifth- seventh- and 10th-graders are proficient or advanced in science, compared to 72 percent of non-Hispanics. In addition, despite having lofty aspirations to attend college, the number of Hispanic students proficient or advanced in math is similar. Kappler-Crookston and her colleagues saw STEM education as a crucial area to address in Idaho’s public schools, where Hispanic student enrollment outpaces non-Hispanic enrollment.

Third-year student Carmen Perez of Twin Falls is part of the fulfillment of Kappler-Crookston’s work. She attended the Catholic church Kappler-Crookston first visited in Jerome and now is double majoring at UI in exercise science and health and Spanish.

Perez said she hopes more of Idaho’s Latinos will attend college, but knows that being away from home isn’t without challenges. Most Latinos are supported by large extended families and faith-based communities, Perez said — foundations that are sorely missed.

There are benefits of coming to UI, too, though, Perez said.

“Having a community of professors, mentors and peers that are in support of what I’m doing, and knowing that when I go home my siblings are beaming at me when I get off that bus — it makes it very rewarding,” she said. “And very importantly, we have St. Augustine’s Catholic Church right here on campus. So I can grow mentally and I can also grow spiritually.”

Kappler-Crookston served as a “sounding board” during her transition at UI, Perez said.

“She’s traveled, she’s spoken with parents, so she knows,” Perez said. “Every time I spoke with her, she understood the struggles of being away from home for the first time.”

“We come from a very tight-knit community, and breaking out of that can be difficult,” added Frederick Olmos, a senior who came to UI from Rupert and is originally from Michoacán, Mexico. Olmos, who is studying political science and Spanish, recently won an Alumni Award for Excellence. 

“We’re blessed to have faculty and staff that support us,” he said. “It’s easy to get crushed and feel defeated without that support. They’re people you can relate to without being judged and looked at differently.”

Modern Languages and Culture faculty
Professor Irinia Kappler-Crookston, second from right, works closely with Latino students to help them transition to college.

The MLC faculty members serve as ambassadors during parent orientation to help ease the transition for families, Kappler-Crookston said, as well as collaborate with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to ensure Latino students have the opportunity to celebrate cultural traditions.

“The whole Spanish department will continue working to support Latinos on campus, and they’re doing it with enthusiasm,” Kappler-Crookston said.

Assistant professor of Spanish Lori Celaya mentors students who conduct research projects in Latino communities. Assistant professor of Spanish Marta Boris teaches a course for the WWAMI Medical Education Program, training future doctors to speak Spanish and work in Latino communities. And Spanish instructor Anibel Alcocer is creating a public relations and media writing course in Spanish to enhance the Modern Language Business degree. Ashley Kerr, assistant professor of Spanish, teaches a Latin American Studies course that allows students — Latino students, in particular — to examine their own heritage, while colleague Shannon McGowan specializes in cultural competency in secondary language instruction.

“We’ve been very successful in reaching out to our Latino citizens and establishing relationships,” said Andrew Kersten, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. “Irina’s work was central to that. Living our land-grant mission means that we reach out to all the state’s citizens, and one of those growing populations speaks Spanish."

Though she has the skills to flourish in an international setting — last summer, Perez traveled to Nicaragua on a global health and community development trip — she ultimately plans to remain stateside upon completion of her degree and graduate program.

“Southern Idaho is where my family is, and I love Idaho with all my heart. So I hope to be able to relocate back home,” Perez said. “Southern Idaho is also very populated with Hispanics, and we have a lot of migrant work there. Physical labor creates problems with joint and back pain, so I hope to go back there and help that community, especially. I know that my Spanish degree will be of use. There’s something special about being able to interact with patients in their native language and not have that language barrier, because you can’t get to the root of a problem if there’s that barrier.”

Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture

Modern Languages and Culture faculty
Irina Kappler-Crookston will retire from UI this year.


University Communications and Marketing

Phone: 111-111-6291

Fax: 111-111-5841

Email: [email protected]

Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts