A Range of Necessities: UVU Latino Initiative Serves Growing Community, Individual Needs

Utah Valley University's Latino Initiative has helped thousands of Latino and Hispanic students at UVU thrive, earn degrees, and most importantly, find a place for themselves in Utah Valley.


The Hispanic and Latino demographics in Utah have seen dramatic increases in the past several years. According to 2020 Census data, more than 50% of Utah’s population growth between 2010 and 2020 was due to minority populations. 30% of Utahns under the age of 18 identified as a racial or ethnic minority, up from 24% in 2010. Hispanic and Latino people now make up 15% of Utah’s population.

Utah Valley University has been well prepared to address this increase and help each student find success. In fall 2022, more than 5,000 students enrolled at UVU identified as Hispanic or Latino — about 12% of UVU’s total enrollment. In the halls and classrooms, on the athletic fields, on the stage, and in the community, Latino Wolverines have found a home at UVU.

UVU men's soccer player Abel Mendoza

The faculty and staff at UVU understand that each of those students is an individual with different needs. One might be ready to thrive the moment classes begin. One might have grown up in Utah as a child of legal immigrants, with a desire to reconnect to their heritage. Another might be an international student on a visa. For another, obtaining financial aid might be their greatest need. Or overcoming the language barrier. Or finding suitable housing.

In other words: serving more than 5,000 Latino students — addressing the educational needs of this rapidly rising demographic — isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition.

“This population has broad, diverse identities,” says Elizabeth Nield, the director of UVU’s Latino Initiative. “There is a big range of necessities. Depending on the circumstances of the student, they all have different challenges.”

The Latino Initiative at UVU was founded in 2007, and in the years since then, it has helped thousands of Latino and Hispanic students at UVU thrive, earn degrees, and most importantly, find a place for themselves in Utah Valley.

UVU Latino Summer Bridge

Nield, who was named Latino Initiative director this year, says her vision is to provide services and programs to encourage inclusion, remove barriers, foster cultural competence through best practices, and guide students' journey to success. She wants to create a home away from home and a refuge for Latino and Hispanic students at UVU.

“My students are my friends,” Nield says. “Even when they’ve finished school, they know they can consider you a friend. That’s the most important part I have seen.”

In addition to the Latino Initiative itself, UVU provides a variety of programs, activities, and events to help Latino students feel at home — in some cases, even before they’ve started attending classes.

UVU Latino Initiative

UVU offers three summer program options for high school students: Latino Scientists of Tomorrow, Engineers & Technologists of Tomorrow, and Business Leaders of Tomorrow. Each one is a tuition-free, 10-week course of classes and activities designed to increase the number of underrepresented students in Utah who graduate with STEM degrees.

The programs have been so successful that they’re now being piloted at six other universities across the nation, and they’ve received $2 million in support via a partnership with Dominion Energy.

“About 85% of the students who complete the LST Summer Bridge Program come to UVU for at least one semester after graduating high school,” says Daniel Horns, Dean of UVU’s College of Science and co-administrator of the Latino Scientists of Tomorrow program. “About 40% of those students are majoring in a STEM field.”

UVU Latino Summer Bridge

UVU also holds numerous community outreach events at high schools and other places where families feel comfortable, meeting them where they are. These events highlight resources, scholarships, and ways to get financial aid, providing information in Spanish to those who need it.

UVU senior Hector Cedillo, who is the president of UVU’s Latino Leadership Council, says the biggest thing he tries to communicate at these events is that there are no limits on what Latino kids can do in life.

“Sometimes people think Latinos come to the U.S. just to work, you know, construction and restaurants, things like that,” Cedillo says, “when in reality we have the potential, the capacity, the skills, the knowledge to become a CEO of a company, become a business owner. There are so many more things that we can do.”

Cedillo, a native of Mexico who first immigrated to Connecticut before moving to Utah, says he was looking for that “home away from home” Nield describes — something that can be a big obstacle for Latino students uncomfortable with the local language and culture.

“I feel like the biggest challenge that we have is just being away from your loved ones, your family, your friends,” Cedillo says. “So you start talking to your classmates, your neighbors, and you pretty much create your own family here.”

Latino Initiative

Latino-focused events at UVU, such as Bachatafest — an annual dance event and scholarship fundraiser featuring Latin American music that draws thousands of attendees — help students and community members preserve and embrace their culture, even if they’re a long way from their countries of origin.

In addition, UVU’s annual Celebración Latinoamericana, which brings the community together to celebrate Latino academic achievements in Utah, including scholarships and awards and Latin American dance performances. Awards are given to community groups and to middle and high school students who maintain a high GPA.

“We don't want students to lose their cultural background,” Nield says. “That’s so important for us. When another person knows about your culture, they can get to know you. You’re not putting on a mask. You don’t think, ‘Oh, I need to be another person, because I don’t fit here.’”

Together, all of these efforts earned UVU recognition as an Outstanding Member Institution by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), a nonprofit organization representing more than 500 colleges and universities in the United States, Latin America, Spain, and school districts throughout the nation.

“We are so grateful for the support from HACU as we continue to serve our growing and diverse communities,” said Kyle Reyes, UVU vice president of institutional advancement, who accepted the award at HACU’s annual conference in San Diego in October 2022. “It was an honor to accept this distinguished award on behalf of Utah Valley University. Inclusivity is among our founding pillars. We have led the way in initiatives to open the door to success for everyone.”

While the challenges of a college education can seem daunting and varied, Cedillo says the resources are here to help at UVU.

“College is not easy,” he says. “Regardless of your immigration status, if you’re from Utah or not, if you speak the language or not — college is really hard. You need to have people around you. There are so many resources here. You just have to put in the effort and sacrifice. The sky is the limit.”