Wayne State University saw an 18% increase in Hispanic student enrollment during the fall semester, but the community is still largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields. 

Angelina Palacios, president of the Latino Medical Student Association and a sophomore at WSU, said there has been an increase in the number of Latino students enrolling in STEM fields.

WSU outreach to Latino students interested in STEM is important, Palacios said.

“That’s the only way you break the cycle of poverty, you break the cycle of reaching further education, you have to break it yourself as a student,” Palacios said. 

Hispanic students currently make up 6.9% of the total enrolled students in the WSU School of Medicine, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis. Hispanic students also make up 4.7% of the College of Engineering, 4.6% of the College of Nursing, 3% of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and 5.5% of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Zach Morales, an academic advisor in WSU’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, said more Latino voices in STEM fields is important.

“Although the U.S. Latina/o/x/ population is 16%, they are only 7% of the STEM workforce,” Morales said.

More Latino students pursuing STEM degrees can bring a different perspective to the fields, Palacios said. 

“In STEM, if we see more engineers getting involved that are Latino, we can come into engineering fields with a diverse background,” Palacios said.

The increase of Latino STEM students comes during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting people of color, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s people of color, Black people, Latino people being marginalized and increasingly more susceptible to the pandemic,” Palacios said. “You realize ‘Well, who’s gonna care about their issues?’ if it’s not people that are from similar backgrounds.”

Osvaldo Rivera, who teaches at WSU and the University of Michigan, said the pandemic has magnified the need for diversity in medicine.

“The pandemic has impacted communities of color disproportionately; thus it is imperative that individuals who know these communities at a more intimate level be there to help in our public health response,” Rivera said.

Morales said skills in STEM fields are important for the future.

“STEM skills will be important for our post-pandemic workforce since they include problem-solving, critical thinking and decision making,” Morales said. “I believe utilizing technology effectively for digital communication and working remotely will be essential for entry-level problems.”

Conducting community programs and research allows WSU to increase diversity and inclusion, Palacios said. LMSA is currently conducting outreach virtually and is in the process of distributing free blood pressure cuffs to those in need through contactless delivery.

“From what I’ve seen, at least in the medical school, they’ve given us freedom of expression in terms of what we want to see accomplished in the community,” Palacios said. “They’re really open for us to do our own outreach and do whatever we want to be involved in the community, which I love.”

LMSA held virtual calls with Southwest Detroit residents throughout July and August, informing them of what telemedicine is and how it works, as well as additional community resources, Palacios said.

“We found that food insecurity was a real thing that people were lacking,” Palacios said. “So, we put them in contact with different food pantries and different community organizations working on that.”

Another topic LMSA addressed was children’s mental health linked to the sudden loss of social activities due to the pandemic.

“We got them in contact with different organizations that were putting together gift baskets for kids, that had puzzles and projects for them to do,” Palacios said. “It’s things you wouldn’t understand until you talked to these people and identified some of the things that we identified.”

One way to attract Latino students to STEM fields is to begin conducting outreach sooner, Rivera said. 

“I would say that efforts should start in middle school and even better yet in grade school,” Rivera said. “I believe that recruitment efforts with mentoring by health care professionals tied into those efforts can demystify those occupations.”

Providing a peer support system for Latino STEM students will help ensure academic success, Palacios said.

“I really think Wayne already does but could possibly do a better job of linking up that mentorship with undergraduates who are in the field already that look like them,” Palacios said. “And really just keep that mentorship alive and helping them every step of the way.”

Matt Williams is a contributing writer for The South End. He can be reached at matthew.williams10@wayne.edu.

Cover photo of Latino Medical Student Association president Angelina Palacios by Paola Garza.