Marla Franco remembers the young woman who showed her that supporting students means more than just educating them.

Eighteen years ago, Marla was working in California as a counselor when she met a student who was about to graduate. The two women — student and teacher — were pregnant at the same time. The mother remains a timeless reminder that anyone — with support — can make it.

Marla’s student was a single mom far from home. She was struggling to find childcare. Marla was on maternity leave, and had an idea.

“Having our sons around the same time, that really gave us a unique connection. I said, ‘Bring the baby to me. Drop him off at my house,’” she says.  “Whenever you’re done with your class, you come pick him up. I got you.”

“It was one of those things where she only had so many classes left to complete her degree that I was like ‘we got to get you graduated by any and all means,’” Marla says. “And if it means that I have to watch the baby for a little bit while you handled this evening school that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Her student finished the semester and graduated.

Years later, Marla sits in an office chair with the settled posture of someone who has led countless meetings and knows she belongs, here at the University of Arizona and anywhere else she decides. 

Marla Franco poses in front of Old Main on the University of Arizona Campus in Tucson, Ariz. on August 1, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Marla holds a doctorate degree in higher education leadership and serves as vice president for Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives at the UA. She has worked in public higher education for nearly 25 years. She has worked at the UA for about 10 years. Through her efforts, and those of others, the UA became the first four-year university in Arizona to be federally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic Serving Institution in 2018. 

To be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution, a university’s full-time enrollment must include at least 25% Hispanic students. The university’s fairly new role as a Hispanic Serving Institution allows Marla to further secure and find opportunities or grants for students and faculty. Any grant or opportunity accepted is meant to enhance a student’s experience, or help ensure that they can afford to earn a college degree and that the curriculum and teaching is inclusive and welcoming, Marla says.

Marla’s energy is that of a determined woman who has counseled hundreds of college students. Helping each one find their own space on campus, and anywhere else they choose. 

Over the years, the memory of one student travels back to her when she thinks of the students who come, go and stay with her forever.

She can still see herself, a 17-year-old Latina, the first in her family to go to college. 

She thinks of everything she went through to graduate from college and understands what it means for other first-generation college students to reach this milestone  

“It’s a lot to navigate,” Marla says. “But I also think — generationally speaking — it’s transformative in terms of being able to bring that experience to your family’s experience, and make it an aspect of your family’s history moving forward.”

Marla knows that there are thousands of students who need educators who understand a student’s path to graduation has many more challenges outside of academics.

“I think access and equity within higher education is really important,” Marla says. “In doing my work, I think about the younger version of myself, the 17-year-old version of me.” 

Marla remembers how hard it was to be the first in her family to go to college. It was much more than navigating a sprawling campus, meeting new people and long nights studying. She brings her experiences with her to help inform the decisions she may make for many of her students, especially those who are first generation Latinx. 

“We want to make sure that students don’t feel like they have to leave aspects of their own identity at home,” Marla says, hardening her gaze. “We want them to bring them (their identities) and celebrate and feel affirmed both in the classroom and outside of the classroom when they’re here at the UA.”

In the U.S., 42% of students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015-16 were first-generation college graduates, according to a 2021 study by the Center for First-generation Student Success. Hispanic or Latinx/a/o students accounted for the largest share — 60% — of first-generation college graduates, followed by Black or African American students. White students represented 36% of first-generation students.

Marla works to ensure that diversity and inclusion efforts at the university begin at the high school level or earlier to put underrepresented Latino students on the path to higher education. 

In Arizona, about 45% of students in grades K-12 are Latino. Marla and her university colleagues secure partnerships with local high schools and districts, such as Sunnyside Unified School District and Tucson Unified School District. 

During the pandemic, the U.S. saw a drop in Hispanic student enrollment by 15%, or 230,000 students, at two-year colleges from 2019 to 2020, according to a 2022 Pew Research report. The trend continued in the number of four-year, Hispanic Serving Institutions. In the fall of 2020 there were 569 HSI institutions and 559 in the fall of 2021.

Over the past couple years, there have been many community and academic efforts to improve college enrollment rates, such as focusing on affordability, supporting older students, and federal grant funding to improve retention rates for first-generation Latino students.

One example is deploying embedded college counselors at local high schools. This helps students to get the support they need to apply for university and financial aid. The collaborative efforts of educators and civic and community leaders are crucial when only 32%, or three in 10, of Latinos ages 18-24 were enrolled in college at least part time in 2021. That means Latinos are going to college at rates lower than students from Asian American, Black or White ethnic or racial backgrounds. And about 23% of Latinos ages 25-29 earned a bachelor’s degree in 2021.  

Read more

This story is part of a series of profiles supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.

The generational pros and cons of being first

Marla first went to school as a first-generation Latina student and in many ways still feels that way today.

About eight-in-ten, or 79%, of Hispanic people over the age of 25 do not have a bachelor’s degree. Marla knew that if she graduated it would be a big step for her and her family. Living in Southern California all her life and moving to Northern California for school was a seismic culture change. Her family was about 600 miles away and not one of them had graduated before her.

“It was challenging attending college,” Marla says. “Oftentimes there was this like unwritten rule book that other students seemed to know that I had to spend so much more time trying to figure out on my own.”

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Her ability to empathize and connect with other Latino students, especially first generation ones, is one her biggest strengths, she says. She understands what it feels like to leave your community, struggle to find your place or sense of belonging within an institution you are meant to thrive in. Throughout her college experience, from undergraduate to graduate school, she says, she saw few other students of color.

“When you’re in educational environments where you don’t necessarily see peers that look like you,” Marla says you wonder if “their lived experiences mirror any aspect of our own lived experiences.”

She knows that some of the things that she was looking for in her own educational experiences are what students are asking for now.

“I want to step into Old Main and I don’t want to leave aspects of my identity at the door in order to come into the boardroom or in order to have a meeting with the president,” Marla says.

What does it mean to be a Latino in education?

“I think being a Latino in the space of education, particularly in the state of Arizona, means that you have to be a relentless, constant presence of advocacy, of pushing the boundaries, of communicating the value and importance and implications for the state,” Marla says.

Marla speaks of a need for space, a necessary persistence.

“Oftentimes I’ll show up to those conversations or when I’m asked to give a speech or keynote and I’ll say you know, ‘If I seem impatient about these things, it’s because I am,’” she says. “It’s because this state can’t wait any longer, our Latinx communities can’t wait any longer.” 

“There are generations of students that we have not fully supported to their capabilities and desires and so for all that we’ve missed out on, we need to show up. We need to show up with a sense of urgency,” Marla says. “You really just have to be all of those things pretty constantly. You have to constantly show up and I think, navigate spaces, fearlessly. You have to show up with a fire lit underneath you.”

Marla is fierce. She wants to see others succeed just as she has. She wants the opportunities that she worked hard for to be more easily and equitably accessible for all students, especially ones from underrepresented communities like first-generation Latino students.

“It’s often an entire family sacrifice for them to be here,” she says of families like her own. “The more students that I can see come through here and graduated and thriving professionally after they’ve left the University of Arizona, that’s the ultimate win for me. I think that’s the ultimate win for all these are families and for the state of Arizona.”

Sometimes being an educator means knowing when a student needs support meeting basic needs if they are to have any chance of meeting their academic goals or personal dreams.

Marla remembers a student who seemed OK. She was active on campus and “an incredibly bright student,” she says.

“Her and her siblings and her mom became homeless for a period of time,” she says. The student started counting on the campus clubs for free meals to keep herself fed.

Marla offered the student some part-time work to help her make ends meet. 

“We developed a very close relationship over time,” she says. “She now works at a university.  I’m very … proud of her for all that she’s navigated and what she now does in return to support students at that university.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated the time period for when Marla Franco was working in California as a counselor. Eighteen years ago is the accurate period.


Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson Visuals: Michael McKisson

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