Arlene Rivera grew up here, the daughter of native Puerto Ricans, surrounded by just a handful of other Spanish speakers.

Most of them, like her father, had ties to the military, having come to the Fayetteville area for assignments at Fort Bragg. Rivera was often the only Hispanic student in her classes, and none of her teachers shared the language spoken in her home.

"I always wanted a Hispanic teacher growing up," Rivera, 20, said. "I thought it would be the coolest thing."

Now, Rivera -- who is scheduled to graduate from Fayetteville State University next year with a degree in elementary education -- is poised to serve as that sort of role model to the booming number of Hispanic students entering North Carolina schools.

"I've seen the big spurt," Rivera said. "Now, you see a bunch of different names that are Hispanic."

In the 1990s, North Carolina's Hispanic population quadrupled, growing at the highest rate of any state. That has sent Hispanic enrollment in elementary schools booming -- and promises to transform the state's public university system in the decade ahead.

Based on current elementary enrollment numbers, officials estimate that Hispanics will make up a third of North Carolina's high school graduates by 2013.

"It's going to keep us busy for many years to come," said Robert Kanoy, associate vice president for access and outreach for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system. "You really have to be aware of the nuances."

Similar changes are ahead for other southern states that saw their Hispanic populations boom in the 1990s, including Arkansas (up 337 percent), Georgia (300 percent), Tennessee (278 percent) and South Carolina (211 percent).

Though Hispanics account for 1.7 percent of the 183,000 students at North Carolina's public universities, they are the fastest-growing segment of the student body.

At Fayetteville State, a historically black university with about 5,300 students, the number of Hispanic students grew 30 percent between 1998 and 2003. About 4 percent of current students are Hispanic, the highest percentage at any state institution.

Despite being among the smallest of the state's public universities, Fayetteville State is taking steps to better understand and target Hispanics at a time when universities compete vigorously for students.

The school has hired a bilingual counselor to help recruit students from Spanish-speaking families. It translates basic documents into Spanish and advertises in a national college guide for Hispanics.

Also, Fayetteville State recruiters hold receptions to talk to Hispanic families about college and are working with Hispanic community groups to help them extend their reach.

"We've got to serve that population if we're going to meet our enrollment goals," associate vice chancellor Jon Young said. "We're trying to look at ways we can be more approachable."

That is also happening at the College Foundation of North Carolina, a nonprofit organization that helps students apply and pay for higher education. It offers a Spanish-language version of its Web site.

A resource center associated with the foundation has hired bilingual counselors and produces materials about financial aid and other topics in Spanish for parents who have not mastered English.

In some places, the changes are more subtle.

At East Carolina University, where the Hispanic population has grown 40 percent since 1998, the name of the Office of Minority Affairs has been changed to the Office of Intercultural Affairs.

But even if Hispanics are made to feel welcome, barriers remain -- such as immigration status -- that could keep them off public campuses.

As many as 1,450 illegal immigrants graduated from North Carolina high schools this spring, according to an estimate from El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Hispanic advocacy group. The Urban Institute, based in Washington, estimated 65,000 such graduates nationwide.

Public universities in North Carolina and many other states do not accept applications from illegal immigrants and do not offer them financial aid. Such immigrants can apply to more costly private schools that do not offer discounts based on a student's residency.

Federal lawmakers are debating a bill that would grant residency to undocumented students, qualifying them for in-state tuition. A Senate committee has endorsed the idea.

Keeping Hispanics enrolled is another hurdle. A study released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center found that even though Hispanic high school graduates are seeking higher education at the same rate as comparable whites, they are only half as likely as whites to complete a bachelor's degree. The study said that is because a disproportionate number of Hispanic students end up at less selective, "open-door" schools that tend to have lower graduation rates.

At Fayetteville State, an important part of recruiting and keeping Hispanic students is the support offered by successful Hispanic alumni.

Luis Berrios is a native Puerto Rican who earned a degree from Fayetteville State after retiring from the Army in 1995.

He intended to teach Spanish but instead ended up working for a military contractor for a better salary.

At the church where he is a leader, Berrios encounters Hispanic youngsters, some of them illegal immigrants, who want the income and status he enjoys. He tutors them in English, tries to help them gain legal status and urges them to pursue education.

Some have ended up at Fayetteville State.

"They are in search of the American dream," Berrios said. "They want to become citizens. They want to have property. They want to be entrepreneurs.

"It's a lot of challenges out here now," he said. "If you don't have a college degree, it's very difficult to get a good-paying job."

Nora Rivera, left, looks forward to college graduation of daughter Arlene, 20.Students walk across the campus of Fayetteville State University, a historically black university where 4 percent of the students are Hispanic. Jon Young of Fayetteville State says: "We're trying to look at ways we can be more approachable."