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Northeast Nebraska native returns to encourage educators to help all feel included

Northeast Nebraska native returns to encourage educators to help all feel included

NORFOLK – Salsa now outsells ketchup among condiments in the United States.

While that might seem trivial, it shows the changing demographics of the nation and the American culture.

Cristobal Salinas Jr., a researcher at Florida Atlantic University who grew up in Nebraska, recently highlighted some of the demographic changes taking place in the U.S., especially with a large influx of Latino and other Spanish-speaking immigrants in recent decades.

While demographics show that immigration is necessary at a time when so many places are dealing with worker shortages, it also presents some challenges. 

Salinas, who was the featured speaker during Northeast Community College’s recent in-service, said community colleges are playing a vital role in the nation’s help with the transition. Community colleges provide the best opportunity for access to higher education for immigrants, including many social justice issues, he said.

Salinas said he came from central Mexico to Madison, where he learned English. He credits many of his teachers there and Nebraskans for making him who he is today, including whites who served as his role models.

The move to Nebraska was prompted when his father was kidnapped in Mexico. That experience changed Salinas’ life as he moved to a new country, and Nebraska became his home. His father ended up safe, he said.

Getting back to Nebraska feels like home, he said, “as there is no place like Nebraska.”

“Coming back to Nebraska is a cultural place for me. It is a place where I learned English, where I made new friends and got my education through a phenomenal educational system,” Salinas told Northeast staff and faculty.

Everyone yearns to have a place where they feel at home and can experience a sense of belonging. 

“Searching for a place to belong can be hard,” Salinas said. “I’ve lived in six different states and two different countries, and I feel that I am very privileged to have different perspectives.”

Salinas said he encourages everyone to engage in critical thinking.

“Critical thinking means that not all of us can be right at the same time,” he said. “It is acknowledging that (things) are constantly changing.”

When people share their own thoughts and ideas, they are taking risks because they make themselves vulnerable. It is important for educators to engage students in critical thinking, helping students to learn that not everyone can be right at the same time.

Salinas shared many of his own personal experiences growing up and going to school in Nebraska, including when he ran for a student senate seat in a college election. At the school, he received a threatening note from an anonymous person telling him not to run.

“My story is the same as many of your stories in different perspectives,” he said. 

Moving to a different culture, there weren’t as many Latinos, so Salinas had to learn to speak English and learn fast. He ate new foods and soon found that tater-tot casserole at school was one of his favorites.

Many times, however, he felt lost.

“I learned to survive in the ideology of white man,” Salinas said. “I did so in the understanding that I am not white, that I don’t speak the language and that people see me as different.”

And that’s one of the areas where community colleges can help – by providing a culture of connectedness.

Salinas said he felt like he didn’t belong in his new country at times while growing up, but educators and peers helped him. Regardless of ethnicity, people can feel like they don’t belong.

And that’s another place where community colleges can help – creating a place for everyone.

“You all have a lot of power in the minds of students and their learning experience,” Salinas said. “I believe educators are the most powerful role model that anyone can have.” 

Educators can help turn the “light bulb” of the mind on for students, but they also can turn it off. The language that educators use or how they engage with students does matter, he said.

Sometimes it can be easy to take things for granted. It might be something simple, like getting invited in eighth grade on a field trip. Salinas said he remembers not getting invited because he was an “ESL” or English-learner, and it was probably assumed he would not understand it.

One of his teachers, however, advocated for him and confronted the teacher who didn’t invited him. The experience helped Salinas, but it hurt him at the time.

Salinas said he learned then to be an advocate for himself and to find the people in his life who would help him. Later Salinas attended high school in Schuyler and started over as a student in a new school.

Every institution – even high school – has its own culture and traditions. 

“I learned then that I had to be the driver of my career or other people would drive my career,” he said.

Salinas encouraged educators to be welcoming and inclusive to all students. He also experienced teachers in Schuyler who turned the “light bulb” on for him, inspiring him and igniting a spark in him.

Part of his research now involves researching demographics. As an example, he pointed out that in the U.S. in 1990, about one in every eight Americas was a race other than white. By 2000, one in every four Americans was a race other than white. By 2010, one out of every three Americans was a race other than white.

By 2025, five in every 10 Americas are expected to be a race other than white.

Not only are birth rates changing, with white s having fewer children, immigrants are having more babies and more immigrants are coming into the country. That is changing the country, including small towns.

Salinas encouraged Northeast faculty and staff to remember that everyone wants and needs to belong. And one of the advantages of community colleges is that they are great at helping to promote inclusivity, which is needed to help with the transition taking place now, he said.

In-service guest speaker
Cristobal Salinas Jr., who attended school in Madison and Schuyler while growing up in Nebraska, speaks to about 400 faculty and staff at Northeast Community College during in-service on Thursday, Jan. 4. He currently works as a researcher at Florida Atlantic University and speaks around the country. (Northeast Community College)