When Roberto Rodriguez arrived at the University of California campus here four years ago, he felt the emotional tug home so many other Hispanic first-generation college students talk about.
His parents wanted him out of their battle-scarred south-central Los Angeles neighborhood and in college. But his mother also didn't want him to stray too far from their home.
Three years and some bumps later, with graduation within reach, Roberto's father suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with diabetes — the kind of family crisis capable of derailing any college career.
But instead of becoming a dropout statistic, Rodriguez will graduate with honors this month from UC-Riverside, where graduation rate gaps that separate Hispanic students from their peers on a national level simply do not exist.
Studies show that more Hispanic students are enrolling in college, but a disproportionate number drop out with debt instead of degrees. At the average college or university, 51 percent of Hispanic students earn a bachelor's degree in six years, compared to 59 percent of white students, according to a March study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
For students from underperforming high schools or with parents unfamiliar with the demands of college life, it might appear the odds of making it to graduation day are against them before their first lecture class.
But authors of a January report from The Education Trust and other researchers point out that similar institutions that serve similar students show wide disparities in graduation rates. Their argument: What colleges do matters.
Two Southern California schools — one large public university in the desert and one small private liberal arts college that educated Richard Nixon — back up that contention. Their solutions for wiping out the Hispanic graduation gap range from a $3.5 million federal grant to a couch for commuting students to nap on.
Separated by little more than an hour's drive in light traffic, UC-Riverside and Whittier College both make targeted efforts to lift the achievement of all students and help their large Hispanic student populations feel less alienated.
The result: Hispanic students describe a sense of home and family at both schools, something core to their culture and an important ingredient to their college success.
"When I came here, I said, 'I think I found my place,'" said Rodriguez, who shed his baggy, 40-inch-waist pants of high school to study U.S.-Latin American relations and history in college with an eye toward becoming a professor. "I had this image of an oasis in the desert — an oasis not that far from home, but an oasis in which I could grow."
At UC-Riverside, Rodriguez found a sense of belonging at the Chicano Student Programs office, where students crouched over laptops gather to study and talk politics. On a recent weekday, Rodriguez brought his mother's tamales to share.
Asked why some Hispanic students don't make it, Rodriguez said it comes down to money, family and academics.
"What happens is that issues with money and family, it leads to your academic mind just not being there," said Rodriguez, who credited friends for helping him with his coursework during his father's medical problems.
UC-Riverside's success is in part "just fortuity," said David Fairris, vice provost for undergraduate education. The surrounding area happens to be dense with talented Hispanic students who don't stray far for college, he said.
Another reason Hispanics account for one-quarter of UC-Riverside's 19,000 students: former chancellor Raymond Orbach reached out to high-school principals in the heavily Hispanic Coachella Valley and guaranteed admission to top students. He also created a Spanish-language guide that highlighted things like the importance of taking algebra in eighth grade.
On graduation day, white and Hispanic students at UC-Riverside are on equal footing: 64 percent of whites and Hispanics alike earn a degree within six years, according to data for students who entered college in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
So-called "learning communities," which cluster small groups of first-year students together in courses through a set time period, are helping, Fairris said. Hispanic students in the programs are 10 percent more likely to return to school the next year than Hispanic students not in the programs, the greatest gain of any ethnic group, the university found.
A $3.5 million federal grant allowed UC-Riverside to strike a partnership with local community colleges to steer Hispanics toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Through that same grant, the school offers $12-an-hour lab jobs to low-income and Hispanic students whose heavy off-campus workload can destroy their studies.
Mackenzie Alvarez worked part time at Burger King and Target before landing a lab job studying the medicinal benefits of a compound in marijuana — an opportunity he credits for bolstering his grade-point average and graduate school resume.
"If it weren't for this program ... there is just no way," said Alvarez, a first-generation college student of Mexican and Irish descent. "I go in every day thinking, 'What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?'"
Alvarez said he's never participated in Hispanic clubs or groups, focusing instead on his books and lab work. But other students do take part — like the 54 living in Mundo Hall, a residence hall where Spanish is spoken and a mural of Hispanic heroes such as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and artist Frida Khalo adorns a common area.
Students of any race can live there, but most are Hispanics from Southern California like Helen Martinez, who lived in another dorm her freshman year. That first year, Martinez said she found herself drifting home to Los Angeles on weekends and explaining to an incredulous (and non-Hispanic) roommate why she called her mother every night.
"I've never felt homesick here," Martinez said of Mundo Hall. "It's a home when you're not home."
If there's an equivalent gathering spot at Whittier College, it's the Cultural Center, which houses minority student organizations, programs to help students adjust to college life — and a couch and refrigerator for commuter students.
Hispanic students make up 30 percent of the 1,425-student, Quaker-founded college east of Los Angeles.
Those numbers, unusually high for a private liberal arts school, can be traced in part to Martin Ortiz, the only Hispanic graduate of the 1948 class. After earning a doctorate elsewhere, Ortiz returned to Whittier, drummed up scholarship money, recruited in L.A. neighborhoods and founded the college's Center for Mexican-American Affairs.
Although graduation rates fluctuate from year to year because of small class sizes, the diploma gap has long been nonexistent at Whittier. The most recent numbers show Hispanic students graduated at a higher rate than white students — 63 percent to 58 percent — according to six-year graduation rates for students who started in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Whittier president Sharon Herzberger said she finds all students at the college earnest and dedicated, but she sees something special in the many Hispanic students doing well in school while balancing 24-hour work weeks.
"They are so unlike me," she said. "They are just these multidimensional people who are determined to experience all they can of college."
One of the school's strategies, similar to UC-Riverside's learning communities, are "living-learning communities" that connect first-year students through common classes, peer mentors and a faculty mentor who also teaches writing.
There's a scholarship program to encourage young minorities to become professors, financial aid and admissions documents translated into Spanish, mentoring programs matching Hispanic alumni with students, annual Hispanic cultural celebrations and hands-on orientation programs for Hispanic parents.
Work, too, goes into helping families of first-generation college students understand the rigors of academic life.
"Family support has such an influence on the students' success," said Luz Maria Galbreath, director of Whittier's Ortiz Programs, which spearheads many of those efforts. "Parents need to understand the time the students need to devote to their studies. They need to know students may not be able to work a part-time job or come back and take over baby-sitting. They need to be close to their peers, participate in study groups and other programs after class."
Whittier's $45,000 annual tuition and room and board are an obstacle for many Hispanics. The payoff, according to students, comes in small classes and close attention from faculty that large schools cannot offer.
"I had a class here, it was me and one other student," said Nadine Barragan, a 2009 graduate. "The professors invite us to dinner. Hispanic students, we like that intimate feeling."
To hear Brownie Sibrian tell it, that kind of attention saved his college career. The first in his family to attend college, Sibrian is the son of a car mechanic and a stay-at-home mom who left El Salvador for better opportunities.
Growing up, Sibrian was told by his father: "I don't want you working with your hands. I want you working with your mind."
But in a cruel twist, his parents filed for divorce on his first day at Whittier, where he'd won a $12,000 theater scholarship. He skipped classes and sat depressed in his dorm. Within a month, he was ready to drop out.
"My parents emphasized, 'Focus on school,'" Sibrian said. "But how can you focus on school when you know there are things you can help out with at home? Especially with Latinos. Latinos are so together."
A math professor, one of Brownie's mentors, noticed something wrong and confronted him.
More recently, the college has developed an early warning system for such situations. Any student, faculty or staff member who sees a student in trouble can go online, fill out a form and the dean of students' office will investigate
In Sibrian's case, the math professor persuaded him to open up about his problems. Professors in other classes gave him more time to finish his assignments, and his grades started to pick up. He also agreed to counseling, even though it was embarrassing. He buried his head in the hood of his sweat shirt walking in and out.
On the last Friday in May, Sibrian and 340 other students walked out of Whittier's Memorial Stadium, new graduates.