WHEATON, Md. — Three years ago, the large squat building at the entrance to suburban Westfield Wheaton Mall housed a Circuit City. These days, the big-box retailer is long gone — a victim of bankruptcy and hard times — and has been replaced by the Washington, D.C., area’s first fully bilingual private institution of higher learning.
The Puerto Rico-based Ana G. Méndez University System (SUAGM, as it known by its initials in Spanish) inaugurated its Capital Area Campus on a rainy day last November, in the presence of Maryland Labor Secretary Alex Sánchez and Montgomery County councilwoman Nancy Navarro, among other officials.
It already boasts 165 students taking classes in both English and Spanish. This is the fourth facility outside Puerto Rico; the other three are all located in Florida.
Classes began Jan. 23 at the gleaming new Maryland campus, which occupies 20,000 square feet and consists of 10 classrooms as well as a computer lab, language lab, nursing lab, learning resources center, conference room and administrative offices. By 2015, SUAGM expects to have 473 students here, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in everything from accounting and management to criminal justice and nursing. The university has the option to acquire another 10,000 square feet of space as it expands, to accommodate as many as 700 students.
On Thursday night, José F. Méndez, president of SUAGM, welcomed a long list of local, state and foreign dignitaries to the new campus.
“Our 63 years of growth and presence in new and diverse markets are a clear example of our commitment to our students,” said Méndez, who flew up from San Juan for the occasion. “Here in Maryland, as well as in our Florida campuses, our goal is to provide education of excellence and opportunities for those who come to this nation with hopes of a better life, a better education, and a better tomorrow for themselves and their families.”
Méndez continued: “We have pioneered the first accelerated higher-education, dual-language immersion model in the United States. Through this model, not only are we preparing bilingual professionals to succeed in demanding and diverse markets within a global economy, but also serving as the launching pad of Hispanic leaders.”
From Río Piedras to the world
SUAGM traces its roots to 1949, when Méndez’s mother, the late educator Ana G. Méndez, founded Puerto Rico Junior College in Río Piedras with 19 students. That institution — the island’s first two-year college — eventually developed into three separate, licensed universities: Universidad del Este, Universidad Metropolitana and Universidad del Turabo.
Along with the four U.S. mainland facilities, the entire system now has just over 44,600 students and 3,500 employees — and boasts annual revenues of $200 million and capital assets of about $500 million.
In a rather unusual arrangement, SUAGM leases its new Wheaton facilities from Westfield Group, an Australian conglomerate that operates 111 shopping malls in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.
“This was a former Circuit City location, and as you can see, we’ve done wonders,” campus director Raúl Medrano told some 50 guests attending last night’s open house. “This is a great opportunity for our community to develop professionals who are bilingual, and we get to share that experience with our students constantly. We want them to be comfortable here, to feel at home. That’s what we’re here for.”
Medrano, who grew up in the Washington area but is of Honduran origin, is a former official of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development. He said his team chose Wheaton because of the suburb’s high concentration of Hispanics, and the fact that it’s easily accessible. Across the street is a Metro station, and the campus is only a few miles from the Beltway and major arteries.
Capital investment in the campus was $1.2 million, he said, and operating expenses come to $3.6 million a year.
“This is our first campus outside Florida, and the fact we’re in the mid-Atlantic region is very important. The cost of doing business here is much higher than Florida. We have to pay higher salaries and benefits. But this campus represents an opportunity for growth. Many students have told us that they’ve been waiting for a program like this for years that allows them to continue their education and finish up their master’s degree.”
United nations on campus
So far, the nationality best represented at the Wheaton campus is El Salvador, with 52 students. (That explains the presence of the country’s foreign minister, Hugo Martínez, at a recent event here launching a sister-city agreement between Montgomery County and the Salvadoran department of Morazán).
Running a close second is Peru, with 51 students, followed by Guatemala (17), Bolivia (16), Dominican Republic (16) and Colombia (10) — with students also coming from Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Panama.
“Our students do not apply online. They come here personally,” said Medrano. “It’s a very personal relationship and that’s what attracts them the most. It’s still small enough that we know all of our students by name.”
The school has 33 faculty members — 28 of whom have master’s degrees —with an average 16 years of professional experience and four years of teaching experience. Just over 61 percent of the students are women, and 59 percent of them are over 35 years old (the school only admits students who are at least 23 years old).
“All of our programs in all our campuses in Florida and Maryland have implemented the discipline-based, dual-language immersion model,” said Medrano. “This is the first time anyone in the United States has taken dual-language education to the university level. Some models work and some don’t. We chose the one that we know works.”
Simply put, every course in this university is taught 50 percent in English and 50 percent in Spanish.
“Our faculty is very strict about that. We don’t use Spanglish,” he said. “We use only one or the other. Suppose you’re learning English or Spanish and you know your professor is bilingual. If this week is in English, you can ask your question in Spanish but we’ll answer in English. Nobody should stop a student from asking for help or clarification just because they can’t use the language of that week.”
Medrano explained that all students take English and Spanish classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“You don’t have to have a certain level of English or Spanish to be a student here, but you do have to take a placement test. It’s mandatory, but you don’t need to be at Level 5 to be admitted to the program,” he said, adding that “all students have online tutoring, access to our virtual libraries in Puerto Rico, and finally a bilingual faculty and staff in a multicultural environment. That’s a requirement to work here; all our faculty are required to be bilingual.”
Building upon its Florida success
In opening the Wheaton campus, SUAGM intends to build on the success of its experience in Florida, where it’s graduated 1,341 students since 2003. That’s the year Méndez opened the Metro Orlando branch — its first outside Puerto Rico itself.
Medrano said the national graduation rate of comparable institutions for four-year universities that serve Hispanics is 30 percent, but for Metro Orlando, it’s 43.6 percent — and at the South Florida campus that opened in 2007, the graduation rate is 53.4 percent. “So we’re definitely doing something right,” he quipped.
In Orlando, 67 percent of the student body is from Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the U.S., a reflection of the region’s heavy concentration of middle-class Puerto Ricans.
But at the South Florida campus — located in the Broward County suburb of Miramar midway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale — 29 percent of the student body is from Colombia. Puerto Rico or U.S. mainland-born students account for another 27 percent, with Cubans, Venezuelans, Dominicans and Peruvians also heavily represented.
Both of those facilities, as well as the Tampa Bay campus, which opened in 2010 and the newest one in Maryland, are accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, based in Philadelphia. In addition, on Apr. 24, the school’s nursing program received a seal of approval from the Maryland Board of Nursing.
Medrano said undergrads pay $360 per credit, while grad students pay $560. Medrano said that puts the Capital Area Campus on the lower end of the scale for private universities, though tuition is slightly higher than at Montgomery College.
With Florida and Maryland under its belt, SUAGM is already scouting out new expansion opportunities as the nation’s Hispanic population keeps growing in both size and economic influence.
“We’re going to follow our experience in Orlando, which started with 165 students. Then we saw an opportunity in South Florida, waited until that grew then we decided to move to Tampa. We’ve gone slowly, by stages, and that’s what we expect to do here,” Méndez, 75, told us in a subsequent interview. “The acceptance in the community has been very positive.”
Other states, DR, Panama on the radar
Luís J. Zayas-Seijo, the university’s Orlando-based vice-president for national and international affairs, hinted that San Antonio, Tex., will likely be the next target.
“We open a new campus every two or three years, and right now we are in the process of looking at potential sites in Texas because it has one of the largest concentrations of Latinos,” he said. “It has grown tremendously since the last census, and in eight metro areas, so Texas is an ideal state to consider.”
Other potential SUAGM branches may sprout up in Chicago, Philadelphia, Connecticut and Nevada, said Zayas-Seijo.
“Given the demographics of this nation and the type of program we offer, which is the only option to access higher education for 40 percent of all Latinos, every place where you have a major concentration of Latinos is a potential market for us,” he said.
SUAGM is also looking beyond the United States — specifically toward the Dominican Republic and possibly Panama.
“International partnerships will be occurring through partnerships with already existing institutions, and also online programs,” said Zayas-Seijo. “We’ll soon launch the first online, dual-language MBA program, and we’re expecting a lot of interest in this from Latin America.”