Published in the Introduction to Quality Enhancement Plan prepared for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
On May 14th, 2005, Laredo, Texas will celebrate its 250th anniversary, making this city one of the oldest in the United States. Because of its age and its history, this old city has been slow to acquire an American face. Laredo’s population of 225,000 is 94% Hispanic, located in what is often described as the most heavily Hispanic county in the nation. Spanish continues as the language spoken at home by an astonishing 91% of the residents of our county. Unlike many sister cities on the Texas or California border with Mexico, here the American and Mexican municipalities are closely joined in every conceivable way. We commonly refer “los dos Laredos”, the two Laredos, and most Laredoans remain closely linked to family members living among the 400,000 inhabitants on the other side of the river in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. It has often been observed that one could be born in Laredo, attend school, finish a program of study at the community college, enter the workforce, rear a family, and leave this earth without ever having had to learn to be comfortable in the English language. Since a preponderance of economic and political power resides in Hispanic hands, our cultural landscape is a tranquil one. We have traditionally considered ourselves bilingual, bicultural, binational, the only Spanish colonial city built on what is today the American, not the Mexican, side of the border.
When asked what makes us most proud of our city, Laredoans often reply that in this place, ethnic, cultural, and religious origins blend in a harmonious and productive manner. Marriages and family connections combining ethnicity and religion have created a diverse culture of easy tolerance within this community. We often seem “The Other” for Americans first encountering our city, for our blended culture has produced a blended language, a Spanish-English argot uniquely our own. It is not the often-mentioned “Spanglish” that one hears in Laredo, but jumbled words loaned or sculpted, trimmed or recast, moved from one language to the other, in patterns that predictably recur. Because of our colonial roots, we also employ many expressions and verb conjugations that are in fact eighteenth-century Spanish. Laredoans speak a language that is both English and Spanish, so fully developed here that one is not conscious of moving between languages or of being in one or the other. It is great fun to mix and match and pull special expressions and constructions from both languages, but as an unhappy consequence, our students who have grown up in Laredo are often slow to develop an ear to distinguish accepted idiomatic constructions in either language. It is not that we are illiterate in two languages, as pessimists have sometimes said. It is that we have created a third tongue, and therefore are not at home when the occasion requires only English or only Spanish.
The linguistic and cultural reality of which we are most proud can easily become a challenge when we consider the mission of the University. Texas A&M International University was founded as an agent of change for this border region, “to improve the quality of life,” to “prepare students for leadership roles in their chosen profession in a culturally diverse state, national, and global society.” We at the University are to preserve all that is unique and wonderful in Laredo, past and present, and at the same time prepare students for professional life wherever they may chose to live. The task becomes and especially urgent when one considers the age of our population: 32% of Laredoans are enrolled in grades Pre-K-12; in New York City, by contrast, 12% of the populace is of school age.
Our regional charge, central to our Mission Statement, is reflected in the composition of our student body. More than 80% of our student body is from Webb County, prepared for university study by our two local school districts. Yet participation in higher education is thin. Only one freshman in four who enters high school in Laredo will graduate and continue to any form of higher education. Scores defining college-readiness are modest. In 2003, 4.9% of students taking the SAT/ACT in one district, and 7.7% in another achieved the score identified as “college ready.” Verbal scores for students entering the University are especially low, averaging 441 on the SAT in the fall of 2003. The Laredo Education Systems Coalition, comprised of Presidents of the Laredo Community College and the University, together with the Superintendents of our two school districts, recognizes the connection between poor verbal scores and an environment which often does not model standard English. Ultimately, we believe the best approach is to adopt in all schools the dual language plan, stressing mastery of both Spanish and English. Political, emotional, personal, and financial difficulties have slowed down that initiative.
In planning the University curriculum, we long ago recognized that adequate communication skills, especially a grasp of standard English, are essential to a leadership role in professional life. When debating possible topics for the Quality Enhancement Plan, we chose to focus on writing, to use our considerable experience teaching and assessing student writing, and to address a continuing challenge our students face when they must communicate in writing. As you read our Plan, you will see that for twenty-five years, we have engaged the question of writing, assessing and then modifying our program countless times without ever managing to convince ourselves that we had the pieces properly in place. The Quality Enhancement Plan has become our most comprehensive and wide-ranging approach to the problem of writing compiled to date.
While we believe that our Quality Enhancement Plan will help us better to guide our students as they learn to write, its effect promises to be more comprehensive. When fully operational, this Quality Enhancement Plan should bridge the eternal dichotomy we face in universities: fragmentation in faithful adherence to separate disciplines, unity in common commitment to the mission of the University. It is our conviction that this initiative, both individual and collective, will strengthen our student, the educated man or woman that we send out into the world.
Ray M. Keck, III