PROVO — Hispanics are among the fastest-growing minority groups in the country, but some Hispanic leaders say Americans are unaware that too many Latinos live on the fringes of society and struggle at the edge of poverty.

They say the reason is many native Spanish speakers lack opportunities for education because of language barriers. A lack of education brings a lack of qualification for higher-paying jobs. Thus, many Hispanic immigrants and their families are unable to compete in America's fast-paced economic system.

That's chief among the reasons Arturo De Hoyos, a Mexican immigrant and retired Brigham Young University professor, established Universidad Hispana, a trailblazing bilingual college that held its first graduation ceremonies on Saturday.

Enrollment began last fall at the college, 1688 W. 820 North. De Hoyos said the students at his college would have been rejected from mainstream American colleges and universities because they cannot speak English.

"It's simply a desire to give a chance to people who desire to excel," De Hoyos said. "We are dedicated to educate our people. We think all the problems can be solved if we put our minds to it."

More than 80 students now attend the college. In the next three to five years, 2,000 students are expected to attend.

During their first year, students listen to lectures in Spanish but use English textbooks. During the second year, professors conduct classes in English.

"They get the language faster and more complete in the context of something useful," De Hoyos said. "This way they can touch the language. They can feel the language. We feel this is very efficient, and we are happy."

The school recently received accreditation. And on Saturday, 43 students received associate degrees at a graduation ceremony in the American Fork Tabernacle.

"Education is the door that leads us away from poverty," said Justino Mora, who addressed his fellow graduates. "We cannot allow our circumstances to bring us failures . . . destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice."

"Universidad Hispana has taught us to be bilingual," Mora said. "I am deeply grateful for this institution. I am grateful for all the teachers and their patience and faith in us."

Universidad Hispana is funded entirely by private donations, including De Hoyos' own pocket.

"We are looking for funds. We are looking for help," De Hoyos said.

The school wants to find a five- to 10-acre plot in north Utah County or south Salt Lake County where the school can build a permanent campus. The college leases a building for classrooms.

De Hoyos came to the United States in 1947 to study sociology and languages at BYU, where he graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees. He earned a doctorate in sociology at Michigan State University.

"Life in the United States has given me everything," De Hoyos said. "I want to give back."