Oklahoma institutions offer bilingual services to boost workforce
The state’s Hispanic population and workforce have grown, requiring more programs to ensure job readiness.
GOODWELL — Tito Aznar started teaching as an English tutor when he was 14 at a private institute in Argentina.
By the time he was 16, he was hired as a full-time instructor.
“So, I would go to high school in the mornings and then I would work in the evenings and take classes,” Aznar said.
He came to Oklahoma Panhandle State University (OPSU) as a student, and after earning his degree in 2004, Aznar started working there.
Now, he is chair of the English department, teaching English and Spanish and directing plays for the university. Watching students advance and listening to how the topics taught in class have prepared them for a career is gratifying, Aznar said.
“That just makes you feel really fulfilled because something you’ve done in class, or something that you’ve done outside of class in the office or just on campus, had some sort of an impact on a student’s life then,” Aznar said. “Even if it’s just touching that one student, it’s all worth it.”
Although many Latino and Hispanic communities have long been established, the populations are growing in rural America. In Oklahoma, between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of Hispanic residents grew from almost 9% to nearly 12%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Institutions like OPSU are adapting to these shifts by providing some bilingual services.
The university has bilingual staff at new student orientations and local high school events to help guide people through the federal financial aid form. It also created El Centro, the Hispanic Student Support Center, to give all university students access to financial literacy, advising, workshops and a study space.
Julie Dinger, president of the university, said the school is adding online services in Spanish through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s an onerous process to translate websites,” Dinger said. “Websites all by themselves are a headache. But making sure that we’ve got meaningful translations has been important because it’s not as simple as running it through Google Translate.”
Over a quarter of OPSU students are Latino or Hispanic
OPSU is in Texas County, in the middle of the state’s mostly rural panhandle. About 50% of people identify as Hispanic or Latino in the county, according to the Census.
Panhandle State offers early college credit, work certifications and associate and bachelor’s degrees. Of the 1,294 students who were enrolled in Panhandle State in fall 2021, nearly 27% identified as Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Dinger said because the university is the provider of post-secondary education in the panhandle and has two-year and four-year degree programs along with work certifications, the federal government measures the school’s outcomes over an eight-year period. Over that time frame, the school has a 27% graduation rate.
The university is a Federal Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), and because of the distinction, it can apply for federal grants and additional funding. To have the HSI title, 25% of a university’s full-time undergraduate student body must identify as Hispanic.
In 2021, of the 328 undergraduates identifying as Hispanic, 43 students received a bachelor’s degree and 25 received an associate degree.
“Part of why we were so competitively placed for our HSI grant with the federal government is because we have a lot of work to do in terms of outcomes,” Dinger said. “We have a very high transfer out rate and withdrawal rate right now and so that’s something that the grant has helped us attack.”
The HSI grant helped the university fund its Aggie Writing Center. Dinger said the center is for all students to use, but especially students struggling academically.
“We want to be able to document best practices for serving our population,” Dinger said. “And we want to make sure that we’re still a place where students from across the state and across the region, regardless of how they identify, can choose us because we’re the right fit for their plan of study, for who they want to be when they grow up.”
Oklahoma's rural population is shifting
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found Hispanic producers operated more than 86,000 farming operations in 2017. In the same year, there were 2,621 Hispanic producers in Oklahoma.
These farmers are younger on average when compared to their white counterparts and are more likely to be a beginning farmer, according to USDA. This is a stark contrast to recent reports of populations in rural settings growing steadily older.
Hispanic workers also make up more than a quarter of the state’s agricultural workforce, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
As the Latino and Hispanic population rises, the state is also seeing an increase in the rural workforce.
The Hispanic or Latino workforce is growing about four times faster than the Non-Hispanic or Latino workforce in Oklahoma’s rural 40 counties. Between 2012 and 2022, the total jobs occupied by Latino or Hispanic workers grew by 2,289, compared to just 513 among the majority Non-Hispanic or Latino workforce.
Kenneth Corn, Oklahoma’s rural development director, said rural communities around the state have needs for skilled workers like plumbers.
There is also a need for agricultural laborers. But Corn said the nature of the workforce has changed because of machinery that is technology-driven.
“You’ve got to have folks who understand the new changes of how we grow crops,” Corn said. “So, there is a real need across the rural part of our economy to try to get people not only have skills, but that we can communicate effectively with in order to have a successful workforce.”
High Plains serves rural Spanish speakers
Barclay Holt, superintendent at High Plains Technology Center, said he sees a demand for language services at the center.
“We know it’s there, I mean we know we have to be accommodating to that,” Holt said.
The center is part of the Oklahoma CareerTech system, a statewide network separated into 29 districts. Holt’s center is located in Woodward, a rural town with a population of almost 12,000 people in the northwestern part of the state.
The center offers adult education and daytime programs including welding technology, licensed practical nursing and wind technician certification. There is also a Technical Applications Program for middle school students to show them the programs at the career center.
In 2022, the center served between 7,500 and 10,000 students. Some of them attended for just a one hour-long training. About 18.4% of those students identified as Hispanic.
Holt said High Plains hired two instructors who are bilingual and it works with the Woodward Literacy Council to offer nighttime English as a Second Language classes. Most people attend the class to learn English, but Holt also said some people attend to learn conversational Spanish — so they can better navigate the area’s increasingly bilingual culture.
“I mean, I think it’s more accepted that, ‘Hey, you know, this is a vital part of our economy and we’re either going to accept it or we’re not going to be able to communicate with our workers,” Holt said. “Necessity is the mother of invention, you know?”
OKC’s Hispanic and Latino community rely on Latino Center
Salvador Ontiveros has a long history with the Latino Community Development Agency, which provides services to enhance the quality of life in the Latino community.
As a kid, he lived down the street from it in Oklahoma City, and his mom would drop him off at the agency’s child development center so she could go to work. Ontiveros is now the agency’s president and CEO.
There are 26 programs with services including childcare and breast cancer screenings. It’s a bilingual space.
“So we 100% have a language barrier,” Ontiveros said. “A lot of my clients that you see here, they don’t speak English. Not all of them, but a lot of them do require bilingual services.”
For Ontiveros, the agency’s programs like healthcare services play a role in workforce development.
“It’s everything,” Ontiveros said. “First of all, let’s just talk about childcare. If you don’t have child care, you can’t go to work because you have your 3-year-old or … an infant sometimes, that needs to be looked after.”
The organization is based in Oklahoma City and mainly focuses on the needs of people in the city. He said nearly 40,000 people were helped through the agency in 2022.
Ontiveros would like to expand services to other areas in the state like in the panhandle where there is a population that needs the programs.
“You know, we still have a lot of migrants and immigrants coming into the state that need services and that need a little bit of a helping hand, and they need it in their language,” Ontiveros said.
This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News' Rural News Network, and the Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.