Upcoming UT-Austin Symposium Will Address the “Vanishing” Hispanic Male

In just a few weeks, education and community leaders will gather at the University of Texas (UT)-Austin with hope of addressing a troubling trend on campuses across the nation: the vanishing numbers of Hispanic males in higher education.

Dr. Victor B. Sáenz, Assistant Professor, UT-Austin

Dr. Victor B. Sáenz, Assistant Professor, UT-Austin

The UT-Austin Latino Male Symposium on June 24 will bring together policymakers, researchers, faculty and students to explore the reasons and brainstorm about short- and long-term solutions to address the problem.
“Ultimately, we will use this platform to enlist support from our partners across education and the community,” said Dr. Victor B. Sáenz, assistant professor, Higher Education Administration, and faculty fellow within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) at UT-Austin. “Part of the aim of the symposium is not only to raise awareness but to enlist support and advocacy of multiple stakeholders.”
For Sáenz, the summit is both an opportunity to examine the disturbing trend but also a chance to promote – and formally launch – a relatively new program on campus called Project MALES, which stands for Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success.
The project, part of the university’s Academic Diversity Initiatives’ DDCE, is a research-informed model that emphasizes mentoring as a way to leverage social capital among Hispanic males. Specifically, the project has been exploring ways to establish a support network for Hispanic male students and promote mentoring links between Hispanic male role models, cur-rent UT Hispanic male students and younger Hispanic males within the surrounding Austin communities.
The project places a strong emphasis on leadership development, community engagement and service; these are the three areas considered critical to the academic success and retention of male students of color in both secondary and postsecondary education.
The project’s mission is twofold: focus on research and on involvement. In the first realm, the project involves research exploring the complex experiences of Hispanic males in higher education. The project’s website serves as a clearinghouse for emerging research on Hispanic males in higher education as well as a resource for researchers and practitioners looking to learn more about this important issue. It also offers a way to link with partners and other programs engaged on issues related to males in education.
In the second realm, it involves a pilot project aimed at reaching out to Hispanic males on campus and off – often through mentoring.
“As you can see from the acronym, we are really focused on the issue of mentoring to achieve Latino male success,” Sáenz said. “We are looking to engage University of Texas male alumni, other leaders, allies within the community, and have them serve as mentors. We also will train current UT Latino males to serve as mentors and work with younger boys in middle and high schools in the surrounding areas. The idea is to pay it forward, if you will.”
Project MALES, the seeds of which were planted in late 2010, was an important step to address the growing educational attainment gap between Hispanic males and females. In 2009, Sáenz and Dr. Luis Ponjuan of the University of Florida wrote “The Vanishing Latino Male in Higher Education,” which explored the complex sociocultural factors, peer dynamics and labor force demands that diverted Hispanic males away from college campuses.

Dr. William Serrata, VP, South Texas College

Dr. William Serrata, VP, South Texas College

“The short answer is ‘no,’” Sáenz said when asked if much attention had been paid to this disturbing pattern. “There has been a growing chorus of attention brought to this issue recently by the College Board. We really need an organization like that to take on the role of being an advocate and push an agenda to raise awareness and instigate more research on this issue.”
The two professors, in a detailed report exploring theoretical and sociocultural explanations, unearthed some complex reasons why Hispanic males are losing ground in accessing higher education and disappearing from the ranks of secondary and postsecondary education.
Among the troubling figures both cited:
In 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 1.9 million Hispanic males ages 18 to 34 were enrolled in or had finished a postsecondary education, representing about 28.1 percent of all Hispanic males within this age group. Meanwhile, 2.1 million Hispanic women 18 to 34 were enrolled or completed such education, representing 35.4 percent of the Hispanic women in that age group.
In 2005, 51.8 percent of 18- to 19-year-old Hispanic males and 57.2 percent of 18- to 19-year-old Hispanic females were still enrolled in some form of schooling – a gap that increases when representing 20- to 21-year-olds, a more traditional college-going age group.
Among 16- to 24-year-old Hispanic males in 2005, the proportion of high school dropouts was 26.4 percent compared with 18.1 percent for Hispanic females – figures that were both above White male and female counterparts. Hispanic males in this age group were four times more likely than White male counterparts to drop out.
Hispanic male and female students who enroll in higher education are disproportionate-ly over-enrolling in community colleges while remaining underrepresented in selective four-year institutions, they indicated.
While raw numbers of Hispanic males in higher education might be increasing, they have continually lost ground to Hispanic females in four-year institutions.
“It is essential to recognize and acknowledge that we can no longer remain silent about this growing epidemic,” the authors concluded. “This crisis is real, yet it remains ambiguous and undefined, a point that is all the more dis-concerting considering the economic and social consequences that it could portend. The sobering statistics are a clarion call for proactive action.”
The two, citing a number of reasons why Hispanic males lagged substantially behind Hispanic females at nearly every critical juncture of the higher education pipeline, addressed the pattern of Hispanic males joining the work force and the military, or having a significant presence in the prison system.
“There are many salient reasons,” Ponjuan said. “There are family obligations. Latino males have a strong ethos to not only contribute to their well-being but to their families’ well-being. They have an expectation to contribute to the livelihood of their family.”
Additionally, there is peer pressure, machismo that prevents a number of younger Hispanic males from seeking help and therefore believing they have exposed a weakness. And, he noted, Hispanic males have shown a general malaise when compared with Hispanic females, and often pursued work immediately after high school for “quick satisfaction and a quick buck, rather than investing in themselves and going to college.”
Despite painting a disturbing picture, the two professors detailed a number of promising efforts at different organizational levels to assuage the declining trend, within K-12, post-secondary, federally funded and private-sector outreach programs.
All were rooted in goals similar to Project MALES and aimed at improving access, recruitment, retention and building stronger educational pathways for Hispanics.
“There have been pockets of folks who have done some work in this area, but it had really been outdated,” Ponjuan said of the research. “There is a large contingent and very strong grass-roots approach from the African-American community. A lot of folks clearly are interested in and investing in the African-American male phenomenon, the issues surrounding them, but the same cannot be said about Latino males.
He added: “We needed to continue to raise this at a higher level because we feel that Latino males deserve their time in the limelight.”
That was the inspiration for Project MALES. For Hispanic males to succeed in the varied academic pathways, organizers of Project MALES insist that researchers, policymakers, public officials, private-sector leaders and Hispanic families and communities must work together.
Dr. William Serrata, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College, said he had sought to understand the problem better. His campus is 96 percent Hispanic – with female Hispanics comprising about 60 percent of the school’s enrollment. Yet, in the surrounding general population, Hispanic males outnumbered Hispanic females.
“This was a crisis in waiting,” he said. “If we didn’t get more Latino males into higher education, we were headed for an economic crisis.” He discussed the issue with colleagues and start-ed to explore the problem and found that many Hispanic males talked about the lack of mentoring and role models.
“They needed someone to help them along,” said Serrata, who subsequently applied for a grant. Although he didn’t receive the grant, he continued to push the need to address this and together with Sáenz developed the Project MALES program. “We have to get them into the pipeline, have to get them into college and have to get them to graduate.”
The program, which also is at a third college, Lone Star College in Houston, is still largely in its infancy. But, as with Sáenz, Serrata has institutional support. “We have a department that leads the initiative, but we are looking at our campus so we do not have to reinvent the wheel, and we will implement initiatives strategically within all programs,” Serrata said.
During this period, the recruitment of men-tors is pivotal and growing incrementally. Serrata stressed the importance, for example, of identifying appropriate faculty members who recognize the day-to-day responsibilities and obligations that come with being an instructive mentor.

Manuel A. González, Second-Year Doctoral Student in Higher Education Administration, UT-Austin

Manuel A. González,
Second-Year Doctoral Student in Higher Education Administration, UT-Austin

“The Latino males immediately know if a faculty member cares for them,” Serrata said. “If they feel they don’t, then they won’t put their best effort forward in class. Male students we interviewed said they could not get their questions in because their female counterparts were very assertive in asking their questions. So we started to ask faculty to call on the males in their class in particular. We have been asking faculty members to make sure they have a warm environment.”
“It’s small incremental moves that in the end will have a large effect,” he said.
Manuel A. González, a second-year doctoral student in higher education administration at UT-Austin, became involved in the program by his association with Sáenz. “We had a mutual interest in the vanishing Latino male in higher education,” González said. “Part of it was self-serving because I saw these issues myself.”
González, born and raised in inner-city Houston, said he looked back at his education in elementary, middle and high school and realized that there were very few Hispanic men who were supportive.
Both of his parents were immigrants from Mexico who came to the United States in hope of a better life. His parents stressed the importance of education and worked two jobs to send him and his brother across town to a private school. González attended Trinity University in San Antonio, where he received an undergraduate degree in business management and Spanish, and is currently in his fourth year of graduate work at UT-Austin.
He credits his father as one of the only Hispanic male role models to foster his success.
“It was a stark reality,” he said. “Thankfully, it wasn’t until graduate school with Dr. Sáenz, when I had a faculty member who identified as Latino. There was a void of Hispanic male mentors who emphasized the importance of education.”
Project MALES, he said, strives to raise awareness among other universities and colleges. But, he said, it’s not enough. Community leaders, neighborhood organizations and social clubs – anywhere Hispanic males might congregate – need to emphasize an education track.
“They need to understand that mentoring these Latino males is a key component of their success,” he said. Such leadership is needed to make a difference, in the private and public sectors.
UT-Austin’s conference next month is crucial but not alone in attempting to address the problem. Ponjuan has planned a symposium at the University of Florida on June 13 – 11 days before the Texas event.
Collectively, Ponjuan and Sáenz hope that further research and provocative discussions will not only engage people and organizations but inspire greater participation in Project MALES.

Said Sáenz: “The symposium will be our coming-out party, if you will. We are planning for it to be a mixture of the scholarly and action-oriented, bringing people to the table to share good and promising practices to serve the needs of these students.”

Fostering a Culture of Inclusion: MIT Takes a Hard Look at Itself

I get the impression that the majority of people here see that having a diverse environment is important to being a place that is excellent. Most people would argue that those two things are reasonably, strongly connected.”
“Diversity is not incompatible with excellence, and homogeneity is not synonymous with excellence. ... the way I see it, diversity and excellence go together.”
“Whenever we talk about diversity, the conversation immediately goes to ‘we have to maintain excellence.’ ... people see a tension ... can’t say ‘diversity’ and assume excellence is included.”
Dr. Paula T. Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering

Dr. Paula T. Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering

These comments – contained deep within a report issued last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – speak to the heart of a debate over achieving excellence while seeking inclusion in the ranks for underrepresented minority faculty ranks.
“We really focused on trying to give an even picture of what MIT looks like right now,” said Dr. Paula T. Hammond, who led the report’s nine-member research team, “and that this is the reality, this is the climate, and this is what can we do about it.”
Nearly all American universities are trying to boost the presence of minority faculty and students on campuses to not only improve their envi-ronments but also reflect the country’s changing ethnic landscape. While MIT has endeavored for some time to increase diversity involving Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans, the institute didn’t necessarily reap success. And last year’s much-anticipated report exposed a number of fundamental causes and mapped out strategies to achieve solutions that heretofore had eluded the institution.
After two and a half years of research and analysis, the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity report described how race has affected the recruitment, retention, professional opportunities and collegial experi-ences of underrepresented minority (URM) faculty at MIT. The report urged MIT to bolster efforts to recruit and retain such underrepresented faculty and strongly encouraged MIT to work with similar higher education institutions to generate a pipeline of URM talent.
“It is actually key for MIT, which wants to maintain its leadership posi-tion in engineering and science, to be able to take the lead in increasing diversity, and that is what is going to keep us at the top,” said Hammond, a Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering. “The idea was essentially that if we expect to have the top talent at MIT, we should be able to draw top tal-ent from every part of our country.
The report was a warts-and-all assessment, particularly striking for its candor about flaws in administrative measures, recruitment and mentor-ing. While other institutions might opt to gloss over negative assessments and trumpet strides and even minimal improvements in URM faculty increases, MIT instead described in enlightening detail its weaknesses, and then recommended short- and long-term strategies to yield improvements.
“It was an unbelievably candid report and showed there was nothing to be gained by trying to finesse the issues,” said Shirley Malcom, the director of the Education and Human Resources program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It said, “if there are problems, then we need to talk about them. Many institutions have the same kinds of problems but don’t necessarily want to confront them.”
MIT’s efforts to hire and retain URM faculty produced some gains in recent years, but the report noted uneven reported results across MIT and called for more effective policies and practices. Additionally, the experi-ence of URM faculty at its five schools was different from that of their non-URM peers – a disparity that led researchers to urge MIT to do more to foster a culture of inclusion.
“As an institution that prides itself on the ability to address some of the world’s most difficult problems, MIT can and should lead the nation in the important challenge of increasing the numbers of minority faculty via a strong institute-wide policy that facilitates advancement in the area of fac-ulty diversity,” the report read.
Its research team, conducting statistical analyses and interviews with faculty members and administrators, found that conversation about race and diversity on campus was generated even before the report was issued. In fact, it discovered an awkwardness to broach the topic of race and diversity, as well as recurring sentiments about the careful balance to seek diversity and excellence.
That research stage was going on even as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech on race in America, touching on many of the same sentiments expressed during MIT’s interviews.

“As we moved forward with the report, we used the way the nation responded to [now-] President Obama’s speech as a helpful gauge of where our country is, as well as where our institution was. It was helpful to see what kinds of things people could respond to positively,” Hammond said.

Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science

The report drew praise for its candor and recommendations. MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif, who launched the initiative in 2007, said, “the report highlights important issues of race and diversity on our MIT campus, and supports our ongoing commitment to integrating a culture of inclusion into the fabric of the institute.” And MIT President Susan Hockfield noted that “We draw most of our faculty, students and staff from America, and we must make full use of the talent this country has to offer if we hope to continue to invent the future. We share this challenge with our peer institutions; only by working together with them can we effectively increase the pipeline of academic talent, the central resource in meeting our diversity and inclusion goals.”
The origins of the report date back seven years ago, to 2004, when MIT faculty resolved to address the issue of diversity, particularly the underrepre-sentation of minority faculty members. The problem was particularly acute –not just at MIT, but nationally – in what are known as STEM fields, areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Hammond said the report drew on MIT’s earlier experi-ence developing the Women in Science Report, a 1999 study that examined equity among women faculty.
In early 2007, Reif impaneled the new committee, with representatives from each school, to probe whether and how race and ethnic identity affected MIT’s ability to recruit and retain underrepresented minority fac-ulty. The committee additionally was charged with examining what aspects of MIT’s culture, procedures or envi-ronment might have influenced URM faculty, causing them to leave before receiving tenure, for instance. 

In 2008, the committee conducted
a quality-of-life survey of the entire MIT faculty and conducted thorough interviews of all URM faculty and a small comparison group of White and Asian-American faculty. It also looked into salaries to determine whether URM faculty was paid comparably to non-URM faculty, and compared pro-motion and tenure rates and other hiring data by department and school.

What it discovered was at turns troubling or inspiring.

The country’s population demographics have dramatically changed, with Hispanics representing 15 percent of the population and minority groups over-all representing about 30 percent, numbers that continue to climb. However, the number of minority faculty at MIT had increased much more slowly.
The report pointed out that underrepresented minority faculty was at 6 percent in 2009, an increase from 4.5 percent in 2000. It is clear, the report states, that talent within the United States was not tapped at the high-est levels of the education system: the faculty.

A substantial number of underrepresented minority faculty were of international origin. The report estimated that the percentage of U.S. minority faculty appeared to be 3.5 percent to 4 percent, which is equiva-lent to about one-tenth of the percentage of such URM groups in the gener-al population. Such numbers reflected little to no growth in the numbers of U.S. underrepresented minority groups at MIT. Many more had come to the U.S. from other countries.
Among Hispanic faculty respondents, 40 percent indicated they were U.S.-born, 35 percent were from South America, 15 percent were from Mexico, and 5 percent each were from the West Indies and Europe.

“One of our challenges with Hispanics was not only the uneven male-female gender ratio, which was marked, but that we needed to find a way to not only recruit,” Hammond said. “A number of existing Hispanic faculty were* coming from other countries, which is wonderful, but if you parse the numbers, we were not doing a very good job find-ing Hispanic talent that is in our schools right now in the United States, and get-ting them into an academic field.”
If MIT can accomplish that, she said, “then we will really benefit from what is a growing cohort of young people who intend to contribute a lot but move to the private sector. We’d like to see them in academia as well and as the head of the class and lead-ing research. We need to do a better job with our talent at home. We haven’t found a way to be effective at reaching that group, and there’s no excuse for that, given the increasing number of Hispanics in this country.”
The report additionally found that MIT heavily recruited from its own and a few peer institutions. For instance, from the minority faculty who were interviewed, 36 percent had an MIT graduate or undergraduate degree, while 60 percent received their doc-toral degree from either MIT, Stanford or Harvard. This news was bittersweet: MIT made good use of itself as a pipeline to faculty hiring, but an increase in breadth of recruitment
could garner larger numbers of underrepresented faculty.
Underrepresented minority faculty reported more active recruitment than nonminority counterparts. This found that the dominant route for nonminority faculty began with a generally unsolicited decision to apply while minority fac-ulty more often than not were approached and actively encouraged to apply.
Hiring by school and department showed patterns in which minorities were consistently not hired in certain departments. However, there were hiring patterns that were apparent in other departments and disciplines. For example, MIT’s Whitaker School had a 22 percent underrepresented minority hiring rate, and MIT’s Sloan School had a 13.3 percent rate. The School of Architecture and Planning had a 6.3 percent rate, and the School of Science had a 3.4 percent rate.
When drilling down the numbers by departments within each school, the research team found that some had not hired any Hispanic, African-American or Native American faculty in the last two decades.

A snapshot of the 2009-10 academic year found that seven departments at the five schools had no underrepresented minority faculty members at that time. Researchers found that some units had relatively no success in such hiring.
Furthermore, a disproportionately significant number of minority faculty left within the first three to five years before the potential to promotion to asso-ciate professor without tenure. For 14 Hispanic faculty studied, for instance, the percentages were even, with 50 percent promoted to associate professor without tenure and the other 50 percent leaving between 1991 and 2004.
Mentoring proved to have a lack of consistency as well. The report noted that such endeavors lacked a level of commitment and a defined role for mentors. Many underrepresented faculty, particularly at three schools, worked in research areas that were different than a majority of their peers. This was noteworthy because, authors explained, there was concern about the appropriate choice of referees for promotion.
The climate around race and inclusion was a significant element, too. MIT’s nonminority faculty saw diversity as less critical to MIT’s core value of excellence, and discussion of race-related issues was avoided at MIT, to the detriment of many minority faculty who might have faced but could not confront such issues directly, the report read.
Overall, underrepresented minority faculty reported greater dissatisfac-tion than their nonminority peers.
The research committee described several examples within its own borders, and from other institutions, that achieved success, hoping these models could be replicated to advance its overarching goals.
For instance, MIT’s Department of Biology intentionally focused on addressing graduate student enrollment and, in particular, student diversity.
Biology instructor Mandana Sassanfar, who coordinated many of the department’s new outreach programs, facilitated that progress. As a result, from 2004 to 2009, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in its graduate program rose from 5.2 percent to 14.4 percent.
The department, for example, offered summer research opportunities to minority students and participated in a number of conferences such as the Society Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos.
“I visit minority-serving institutions, meet with interested students and establish long-term relationships with faculty and program directors at those schools,” Sassanfar said. “I introduce students to the culture of the biology department at MIT and make sure they are not intimidated by MIT’s rankings and reputation.”
Sassanfar added, “Many students have no idea what kind of starting salary and career options are opened to them after graduate school. Being a profes-sor or a teacher is not appealing to everyone, and having a Ph.D. in a biology-related field opens so many doors. I try to make sure that they are aware of it.”
The summer biology program has proved to be an attractive endeavor, and usually about 50 percent of the participants are Hispanic. The payoff has been clear, Sassanfar said, because at least 10 of the department’s cur-rent Hispanic graduate students spend a summer or longer at MIT before entering its Ph.D. program.
The research committee delivered a set of recommendations to increase and promote diversity among MIT faculty, by strengthening many of the core elements of MIT’s hiring, mentoring and promotion processes. It created a framework for greater oversight and self-evaluation at all lev-els, from departments to labs to school and administration.
Structurally, it recommended that each departmental unit, lab and cen-ter should work with its academic dean and associate provost of faculty equity to establish realistic but meaningful goals with timelines.
Administration and school deans should provide better resources and support for recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty. Additionally, MIT administration should endeavor to appoint leaders such as deans and department heads who are committed to diversifying faculty.
When it came to recruiting, researchers recommended that department heads and faculty search chairs be held accountable for minority recruit-ing, and faculty chairs should be better trained and informed on issues including hidden biases and existing resources.
The report recommended that MIT should build strong pipelines on campus and network with top peer institutions, and searches need to be broadened to other carefully selected institutions to boost the numbers of qualified URM candidates.
As well, faculty searches that involve hiring in small groups or clusters, as opposed to single hires, be pursued so that final top candidates are grouped and not ranked. Ranking often led to the exclusion of qualified candidates based on arguments about need or specific “fits” to an open position.
Carlos Castillo-Chávez, one of the initiative’s advisory board members, said this process, occurring at higher education institutions across the nation, often could shut the door on many qualified Hispanic and African-American candidates.
“Often, even though they are incredibly qualified, they don’t fit in at institutions that are based on disciplinary borders, where everything is in a silo,” Castillo-Chávez said. “They need to recognize that the world has changed and that should be good for science, and good for engineering and good for diversity.”
MIT likewise could take steps to improve its mentoring. Formal men-tors should be assigned to junior faculty hires, and mentors and mentees should be informed about expectations, and mentors should receive train-ing and be held accountable to the department in their role.
The departure of minority faculty early during their MIT experience prompted researchers to recommend a general oversight process for all tenure cases from the dean and provost level that could take place early on. Beginning with first annual reviews, there should be careful discussion of potential referees, including their competency levels. And all junior faculty should be given guidelines on promotion and tenure when they first arrive.
Finally, MIT from the highest levels must introduce, create and maintain a climate of inclusion, should hold forums where race and cross-cultural interac-tions are openly discussed, and should harness its top and most highly respect-ed scholars, scientists and engineers to act as spokespeople in diversity issues.
Hammond said that since the report was unveiled, MIT has launched strategic steps. Much of the first year was spent in discussions with each school to devise implementation plans.
Consequently, several short-term recommendations presented by the initiative were already implemented, such as including a new template for collecting information on recruiting efforts for minorities and women, and meetings by the associate provosts for faculty equity with each department head to discuss the mentorship progress.
“Across the nation, all of us can do a better job of recruiting underrep-resented minority faculty into the field in undergraduate years, as well as in graduate years,” Hammond said.
Castillo-Chávez, recognized as one of the most prominent mathemati-cians in the country, has spent much of his career trying to enhance the participation and opportunities for underrepresented minorities. He was warmed by MIT’s welcoming reaction to the findings, warts and all.
“Personally, it was a very welcome response from MIT,” Castillo-Chávez said. “Most significant is that MIT took this initiative because a lot of less elite institutions don’t take this very seriously, and it is welcome when institutions that have such high standards in terms of faculty think diversity is important.
“I expected that MIT would be very positive and come up with all sorts of ways to adopting the recommendations. It was a recognition that there are issues that have limited progress and that they face serious challenges ahead.”

MOSI Spurring Love of Science Through Innovation and Awards

It’sthe largest children’s science center in the nation, but when students – no matter what age – step into the Tampa, Fla.-based Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), they will be able to learn if they embrace one cardinal rule.

“They have to have fun,” said Alicia Slater- Haase, MOSI’s senior vice president for marketing and development. “MOSI is a fun place, and everything is hands-on. Nobody comes to MOSI simply to learn; they come to MOSI to have fun, and the learning happens while you are here.”

Now in its 53rd year, MOSI is a nonprofit, community-based institution focused on fostering a greater awareness and understanding of science and industry. MOSI, at its current location on 74 acres in North Tampa since 1980, provides public programs and exhibits, and includes a 190,000-square-foot science center with Florida’s only IMAX Dome Theatre, extensive permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, a welcome center, planetarium, nature center, classroom space and a public library.

A key ingredient of its mission is making science tangible for youth, and particularly for Hispanic and African-American youngsters and teenagers. That goal is the outgrowth of longstanding ethnic disparities among students attaining higher education degrees, and particularly those who pursue careers in science and engineering.

Aware of this ethnic divide, in 2009 President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative aimed at bolstering participation of the nation’s students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or what is commonly referred to as STEM. The initiative more specifically was geared toward equalizing the playing field for traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Hispanics.

Traditionally, Hispanics, as with women and African-Americans, have held few jobs in STEM fields in the country. A Bayer Facts of Science Education report issued last year, for instance, found that more than three-quarters of those it polled say significant numbers of female and underrepresented minorities were absent from the U.S. STEM work force because they were not identified, encouraged or nurtured to pursue STEM studies early on. Additionally, nearly twothirds believed that such underrepresentation by women and minorities in STEM threatens the nation’s global competitiveness.

Factors connected to the underrepresentation involved larger socioeconomic issues. The survey found that a lack of quality science and math education programs in poorer school districts, stereotypes about female and minority involvement, financial issues and a lack of communication to attract such groups all contributed to the low involvement.

Coupled with this have been lower graduation rates and other trends exposing wider gaps between White and Hispanic enrollments on higher education campuses.

Those numbers are a driving force behind MOSI’s annual awards that celebrate accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by Hispanic professionals. For the last 10 years, MOSI has conferred the Hispanic Scientist of the Year Award on accomplished Hispanic leaders in their fields, recognizing outstanding national Hispanic scientists who promote a greater public understanding of science and motivate Hispanic youths’ interest in science.

“The goal of the awards is to inspire students to stay in school, get an education and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Slater-Haase said. “We need to stay competitive with the rest of the world, and we need our students to receive an education in those careers. Students need to stay in school and get an education to be successful in their lives.”

“Hispanic students need mentors and role models to inspire them to stay in school, and this program is providing that,” Slater-Haase added. “They are seeing outstanding Hispanic role models who are sending them the message that ‘if I can do it, you can do it, too.’”

2010 MOSI Awardees

En 2010, MOSI honored Dr. Dan Arvizu, one of the world’s leading experts on renewable energy. Arvizu currently serves as the director and chief executive of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the department’s primary location for energy efficiency and renewable energy research and development.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Arvizu is the first and only Hispanic ever to become a
director of a national lab in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed Arvizu to a six-year term on the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation and the national science policy advisory body to the president and Congress. He testified before Congress four times, delivered state-of-technology presentations at three congressional caucus briefings, and keynoted 12 major national and international conferences.

“The technologies being developed at NREL are the future of energy in this nation and around the world. It’s an honor to celebrate the tenth anniversary of this award by hosting a Hispanic leader at the forefront of that research,” MOSI’s president, Wit Ostrenko, said in a statement.

“Dr. Arvizu has been key in promoting a greater public understanding of renewable energy resources and serves as an inspiration to today’s youth, who are growing up at a time when these energy solutions are most important.”

Arvizu joined a prestigious roster of accomplished Hispanic leaders who not only received the award, but paid it forward by mentoring youth:

2009: Dr. Nils Díaz, former chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Díaz is from Cuba. He was a nuclear engineering professor and chairman at the University of Florida.

2008: Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a molecular biologist and CEO of Cytonome Inc., a company that was building the first optical cell sorter of human cells for therapeutic use, as well as a founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. She is Mexican-American. During her more than 20-year research career, Villa- Komaroff held positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard Medical School.

2007: Dr. Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of engineering at North Carolina State University, and of Puerto Rican descent. He was the first Hispanic to serve as acting head of the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation and director of its Division of Design, Manufacture and Industrial Innovation.

2006: Dr. Inés Cifuentes, a seismologist from England, Ecuador and America. Cifuentes helped establish the Carnegie Academy of Science Education, which trains teachers in science, mathematics and technology, and served as its director for 10 years. In 2005, she became manager of education and career services of the American Geophysical Union. 

2005: Dr. Edmond Yunis, professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Department of Cancer Immunology and AIDS at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Yunis, a renowned researcher and immunologist, is from Colombia.

2004: Dr. Antonia Coello Novello, first woman and first Hispanic to serve as U.S. surgeon general, from 1990 to 1993. Novello, who had been a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commission, was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.

2003: Dr. Mario Molina, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in elucidating the threat to the Earth’s ozone layer of chlorofluorocarbon gases. The Nobelist is from Mexico, and one of the world’s leading authorities on pollution and the effects of chemical pollution on the environment. He is a faculty member at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California-San Diego.

2002: Fernando “Frank” Caldeiro, NASA astronaut born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From 1985-88, Caldeiro worked as a test director during the production and flight test of the Rockwell/USAF B-1B Bomber and was then transferred by Rockwell to the Kennedy Space Center as a space shuttle main propulsion system specialist. NASA hired him in 1991 as a cryogenics and propulsion systems expert for the safety and mission assurance office. NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 1996. He passed away in 2009.

2001: Dr. Alejandro Acevedo- Gutiérrez, marine biologist who conducts research on the behavioral ecology of marine vertebrates, was raised in Mexico City. He was featured in the movie Dolphins. He currently is an associate professor at Western Washington University. Novello conceded that she was initially unfamiliar with the award and its importance when she was first selected as an honoree. But she noted, “MOSI’s president was so convincing, and made it sound like a loss if I was unable to attend. When I learned there had been a Nobel Laureate, a NASA astronaut, and a marine biologist who had won before, I knew I had better show up!”

Proceeds from the awards gala, held each October, fund scholarships that will employ Hispanic teenagers involved in the program. As part of their agreement to give back, National Hispanic Scientist of the Year honorees take part in Meet The Scientist Day, an annual event in which honorees deliver inspiring lectures and meet with hundreds of students, many from underserved communities in neighborhoods near MOSI.

For Novello, that engagement made MOSI’s recognition even more poignant. Novello, who also served as commissioner of health for New York state, has since encountered a number of the attendees later in life, and was moved by the fact that many received scholarships and pursued education in science or technology.

“I remember looking at all of the faces and thinking ‘my goodness,’” Novello said, recalling
her remarks to three groups of students, about 1,200 in total. “You are supposed to tell them about your life, what you accomplished, where you came from, and more than anything make them understand that despite poverty and isolation, or not having parents with the highest education, that you can be somebody.

“I told them, ‘You have to have good grades, you have to have consistency, you have to respect your parents and your teachers, and give more than what is expected of you,’” she said. Spurring student interest in the field – and in continuing their education – was crucial, Novello said, given that the Hispanic population has been steadily growing, yet Hispanic involvement in higher education has lagged behind that of other groups.

As she addressed students, her hope was that they would think, “‘I saw it, I tasted it, I know I can do it.’ Maybe that is why I do this so often. As much   as the kids learn from each person, so do we.”

“I believe that if you are taught well, you will always want to give back,” Novello said. “The MOSI board is continually making this the best event every year, and I am in awe of who they find. The moment that is the biggest is not in getting the award or meeting the professionals, but it is the faces of the children, that some of these children will later come up to me and say, ‘remember me?’”

In the audience at these events are often students involved with a successful MOSI program called Youth Enriched by Science, or, the YES! Team. Started nearly two decades ago, the YES! Team is a career and educational enrichment program designed to help at-risk 13- to 17-yearold students (in seventh through 12th grade) by providing tiered mentoring and career-ladder and vocational training to give students a chance to develop self-confidence and build self-esteem, communication and leadership skills.

Vivian McIlrath, a Yes! Team graduate, did more than benefit from its services. She returned to MOSI to serve as its youth programs coordinator. McIlrath, the oldest sibling in a Hispanic family, said she only enrolled in the program as a 14-year-old to keep an eye on her brother, who clamored to be part of it.

The tables turned, though. Her brother moved on to other endeavors, and her experience with the Yes! Team prompted her shyness to wane and self-confidence to build. She not only became excited about public speaking, but then successfully pursued a college degree in communications at the University of South Florida.

“I had so much fun in the program,” she recalled. “It built up my confidence. I had very little to none, and my self-esteem was just shot. When I joined, I was finishing up middle school, where I was not involved at all, and then I became super-involved in high school.”

About 75 percent of the Yes! Team students are Hispanic. Now as she works with the Yes! Team’s current group of 15 students, she communicates at their level, understanding the distractions from mass media, new technology and peer pressure.

“The biggest challenge has to be fighting the stereotype that if you are going to a science museum you are a geek or a nerd,” said McIlrath, whose team meets on weekends and all summer long.

MOSI leaders note that 90 percent of the students involved with the YES! Team move up to college, and 87 percent become mentors to new team members. And even more encouraging, nearly 82 percent of the team members pursue careers in math and science. 

Of the current group, McIlrath said, three have expressed desires to become engineers; four want to become doctors; and another, a physicist.

MOSI

That’s the career trajectory that MOSI hopes to spur, and could possibly even lead to a Yes! Team graduate under consideration for a National Hispanic Scientist of the Year award down the road.

“We look for engineers and scientists who have had pretty notable careers and have been involved in education in their careers in some way,” Slater-Haase said. The honorees “have done volunteer work and recognize the value of education.”

So, for instance, the most recent honoree, Arvizu, has devoted considerable attention to engaging with students to heighten their interest. “He often works with student groups and stresses the importance of getting a career in science,” Slater-Haase said.

The ceremonies haven grown in size and stature over the last decade, attracting more attendees interested in celebrating the accomplishments of Hispanics in the field.

Additionally, the number of nominations coming in from across the nation continues to escalate each year. “The number of nominees in the beginning was not a large number,” she said of the open nomination process. “This year, we have close to 20 people who were nominated. Anybody is welcome to nominate a candidate for the award, and we have a committee that reviews those nominations.”

Slater-Haase was attending ceremonies even before she started at MOSI four years ago.

“To me, as a scientist and someone who is passionate about education, having an opportunity to meet these people was worth it,” she said. “I’m not into movie stars; I’m into scientists and engineers.”

Irma García: Blazing Trails & Scoring Success

It’s lonely at the top for Irma García. Since 2007, when she was named the athletic director at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., she has remained the first and only Hispanic woman to lead a Division I athletic program.

“I like where I am at,” she said recently. “I have been really blessed, though I wish there would be more females getting into this role.” If she has anything to do about it, then there likely will be others who follow in her sneakersteps. García proudly wears the distinction, using her experience to help shape legions of athletes into better, more well-rounded individuals before they head out into the post-collegiate world of work and greater responsibilities.

García first arrived at St. Francis in 1976 as a student-athlete and played on the women’s basketball team. Her strong defense won her a coveted starting role. When she graduated, she didn’t have to look too far. She became the girls’ basketball coach at St. Joseph by the Sea on Staten Island. And in 1988, she returned to St. Francis, then as the head coach of the women’s basketball team.

García received accolades, and after the 1997-98 season, she earned the Northeast Conference Coach of the Year award. Off the court that season, her team had the 23rd-highest grade point average among more than 300 Division I programs, and her students bested that distinction the subsequent year, when her team had the fourth-highest GPA among all Division I programs.

She turned in her coaching jersey in 1999 to serve as St. Francis’ associate director of athletics, a role in which she needed to handle fundraising and budgeting and which paved the way to her elevation to athletic director in 2007.

Irma Garcia

“Because of her experience with the college as a student, an athlete and a coach, as well as her administrative duties in the athletics department, Irma was the best-qualified person to become our next director of athletics,” said St. Francis College President Brendan J. Dugan. “The fact that she is a trailblazer for Latinas is an added bonus in several ways. It offers an example for the younger generation to aspire to and also gives our current and future Latino students a supportive and friendly face to help them adjust and succeed at St. Francis.”

García earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in 2001 in sports administration and is an active member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA), American Council on Education, and Minority Opportunities Association.

She’s been featured by numerous media outlets, from USA Today to ESPN to American Latino, a nationally syndicated TV show. She remains awed by all of the attention – the numerous awards citing her glass-ceiling-busting distinction. Recently, García was recognized as one of the recipients of the 2010 “Mujeres Destacadas Award” by El Diario La Prensa, the premier publication serving New York-area Latinos. And just over two years ago, in October 2008, she was honored by the not-forprofit organization MANA, which presented her with its Las Primeras Award at the White House. She sat down with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine to discuss her role, vision for student achievement and future goals.

The Hispanic Outlook: You were honored at the White House as a 2008 Las Primeras Award Recipient by MANA for becoming the first Hispanic woman to run an NCAA Division I athletics program. What was that like?

Irma García: I didn’t know I was being honored at the White House. It was two combined events, and what ended up happening was that my parents were flying in to Washington, D.C., and I asked if they could come the night before, and then the part of the event was at the White House. I was really excited. But that was the night that there was a vote on the first stimulus, so there really was nobody around at the White House. Even the person who was supposed to give me the award couldn’t attend. I took as many pictures as they allowed me to. It was a day I will never forget because my parents were there. I am one of eight children. My dad worked two jobs, in the post office and as a carpenter. And my mother was a paraprofessional and a school crossing guard. They constantly worked, so they were unable to attend any of my basketball games. So this was a wonderful experience. I still have the pictures from that day.

HO: More recently, you received a 2010 “Mujeres Destacadas Award” from El Diario La Prensa. What did that mean to you?

García: They didn’t tell me what it really was until I arrived. When I arrived, there was a huge picture of Judge [Sonia] Sotomayor, and I was saying, “Oh, my goodness.” I had e-mailed her when she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and she answered back, which I thought was phenomenal.

HO: What did she say?

García: She thanked me and congratulated me as well. Once I saw the picture, I thought she was going to be at El Diario’s event. Instead, her best friend was the keynote speaker. El Diario’s event was interesting; they made us feel like princesses. They seated me with a high school student who wanted to go into athletics. They grouped people together based on their interest. It was just amazing. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez was at my table. I was so upset that my mom wasn’t there. She would have enjoyed sitting with so many Puerto Rican women at my table. We exchanged stories about Quinceañeras; they told us that today you are all princesses for the day, and gave us all little crowns. The only regret I have is that I didn’t invite my mother. She lives in Florida and, had I known more about the event beforehand, I would have flown her in to attend.

HO: Do you see yourself as a role model, and if so, what do you hope to convey to students, particularly Hispanic women?

García: Yes I do. When I found out that I was the first Hispanic woman as an athletic director, I could not believe it. I didn’t know what to do. I was like, “What am I supposed to do now?” At the time I was getting the award at the White House, Dr. [Frank] Macchiarola, the college’s president at the time and one of my mentors, allowed me to take part in a professional development seminar, NACWAA, because I was becoming athletic director. I learned so much in that seminar about administration, and who I am now, what I am supposed to be doing. At the end of the seminar, there were all of these gifts handed out, and in each gift was a word. The word I picked up was “inspire.” I became very emotional and cried because I realized that this was what I was meant to be doing, inspiring people. I took that and ran with it. That’s what I have been doing all along with Hispanic kids. It is important for me to reach out, to help Hispanic women and students. A few months ago, I spoke on a panel to female students and faculty. Many of these women do not know what is out there and what is available to them. It was important for me to speak and let them know they should get out there and go after their dreams. I try to mentor as many student- athletes as possible, not just female students. At the panel, there was a Latina woman who asked the question “How do I find a mentor?” I responded, “You just did. I will be glad to be your mentor.” It was important for me to reach out to her and other students, to tell them they can do whatever they want in life, and show them there are ways you can get things done and live your dream, because I’m living my dream.

Gracia with SWA

HO: What makes a good mentor?

García: You really have to understand the students. You have to understand what somebody needs. You have to be a great listener. To me, everybody has a story. When you hear their story, you can tell some of the things they need to tweak, make suggestions, be there for them. Everybody has a story; everybody has a struggle. Old, young. Everybody faces bumps in the road. If I can help them to see the whole picture and let them know how to get past the bumps in the road and not to take things personally, that can help. If we take things personally, we can never achieve our goals. There are always steps to take, and there is no substitute for hard work. That’s what makes a great mentor. You constantly repeat all of these things and show a passion for what you have. It can be very contagious. In my three years as athletic director, my day is full and constant, and it feels so good and rewarding to me when our student-athletes accomplish their goals. It is wonderful when you can make a difference. To me, mentors are difference makers. It’s a great achievement.

HO: So what is your typical day like?

García: I get up at 6:30. I don’t need a clock. I do a little bit of exercise, and I have a moment to reflect on what I need to do for the day. I usually take the train to work from Manhattan to Brooklyn. From the moment I get off the train, it may take me awhile to get to my upstairs office because I stop to say hello to so many neighbors on our block, to students, student-athletes and faculty. I have a wonderful staff; they are very young and full of energy. I meet with my senior staff, and we go over the day. I have an open-door policy all day. Even if I have a full day, the students come first, and the president of course! I attend many meetings and many games. I make every effort to attend every home game.

HO: How many students are involved in your sports programs?

García: We have between 180 and 200 in 19 sports. It’s important for them to see me and understand that I am in this with them. We just had a seminar for student-athletes on how to write a résumé. We had 75 kids signed up for this program. We just don’t teach them about sports. It’s not about the X’s and the O’s; it’s about many other things, and helping others so you can learn about who you are. I always think our student-athletes are going to get hired before others because they perform so much community service and understand the value of leadership and giving back.

HO: What types of community service are they encouraged to perform?

García: This is an integral component of every student-athlete. We encourage them to do community service and to give back. We are involved with the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. They work with New York Road Runners and Boys and Girls Club. And we did this wonderful event where we had 200 donors who donated shoes for 200 underprivileged kids. The kids did not know they were getting the shoes before the week of a basketball game. The donors came in and wrapped the gifts with our student-athletes and gave each kid a box with the shoes in it. You could see the look on their faces, the donors as well as the student- athletes, as the kids opened up their gifts. It was some good stuff! We have other programs as well, like Think Pink and Relay for Life. Now I am challenging all of the student-athletes to do more community service and share their experience with other athletes besides their team. Our teams are competing against each other to see how much they can do different types of community service. I tell them this is part of their growth and if they want me to recommend them, then they need to perform community service. I don’t recommend anyone who does not give back. It is important that they learn to give back early on.

HO: Tell me about the challenges that today’s students face.

García: Kids don’t always have it easy. Most of our student-athletes work, and many have to bring up their siblings. For them to find the time to do all of the things we expect them to do can be a challenge for them. Many of our kids come in with very sad stories. Our school is very diverse, and a majority is either Black or Hispanic; they often are dealing with a variety of different issues on a day-to-day basis. We have a good counseling center, and a number of kids are involved with the center. The dean of students and I work very well together, and this can be rare at many colleges, but she’s great. We understand each other’s role. I give kudos to the coaches. They do a lot with their student-athletes, who are dealing with everything, like not getting enough sleep or dealing with death in their lives. I hear their challenges. I listen to them. I tell them they have to find ways to overcome these challenges. I am big with prayer, and not because we are a Catholic school, but because I believe in having faith.

HO: Was basketball your first love?

García: As I mentioned, I was one of eight children. We played many sports together and against other kids. We had a softball team comprised of my siblings and cousins; it was Team García, and we played against everybody else. I am a lefty. Back then, if they made two lefty gloves, that was a lot, so I had to put my glove on the wrong hand. We played against everybody, so I always played with the boys. The first six of us were girls, and my father wouldn’t let us out. He was a carpenter and built everything in our backyard. We always sat with him and watched basketball on television. Because we were not allowed out often, we played basketball in front of the house. We didn’t have a basketball hoop, so we played to “hit the sign.” You had to hit – or “tap” – the “No Parking” sign. That was a shot, and that’s how we first played basketball. We used to beat the boys at “taps,” even if they’d give us girls an extra point to start. It turned out I was really good at basketball. When we mixed up teams, the guys always chose me first. So when I got to high school, I didn’t know the rules of the game, so I got cut from the team, but I could shoot better than most of the kids at the school. I remember the coach telling me that I needed to learn the rules. But next year, she ended up not being the coach, and the new coach took me on the team. I was a junior, and I scored most of the points, and I had learned the rules. I still love watching basketball, but I don’t pick up a ball anymore. Now I’m into golf!

HO: You are the only Hispanic woman breaking through the glass ceiling. How challenging is it for others to attain this?

García: Unfortunately, it’s mostly an all-boys group. There are some phenomenal women, but apparently schools are hiring more lawyers and people from the business world as athletic directors. I went through the ranks of physical education and sports. I really believe that if you are going to be a good director of athletics, that you need to know about sports; you’ve played it, you’ve coached it, and you need to know sports if you are going to administer it. In some places, the athletic director does the fundraising while the senior associates do the day-to-day management. I am fortunate to have a president who allows me to be involved in the day-to-day operations and to serve the student-athletes and coaches. I like where I am. I have been really blessed, though I wish there would be more females getting into this role. I served on the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities Interest Committee and sat with all of the young NCAA interns. I asked how many of them wanted to be an athletic director, and five of them said they did. I told them they definitely could reach that goal, and I will take them by the hand and show them how to get it done. People have to give them a chance. Presidents have to give more women a chance. The good thing about women is we have that mommy gene; we know how to multi-task, how to develop and be passionate about what we do. We are very good listeners, and we know how to delegate. We think outside of the box. Given the opportunities, women can run a really good program. I am hoping that there are going to be more women athletic directors. I don’t want to be the only one. It gets lonely.

HO: Do you have any recommendations for others who want to follow in your footsteps?

García: They really need to not only network with other women but with men, and they need to meet presidents. They need to go to professional development seminars. The American Council on Education does a great job in promoting women. They should apply for internships and apply for a grant somewhere and learn more about what it takes to be a Division I athletic director, or a vice president or a president. If they want to be mentored, they need to reach out. Women need to share their stories, their struggles, and I am sure that people will open up and try to help them out.

HO: What are the signs of a good coach?

García: A good coach is a good teacher. When you are teaching a class, you want the students to learn. It’s not about simply memorizing. I consider teachers who make students just memorize to be poor teachers. A good teacher wants students to understand concepts, and teachers must be productive, inspiring and engaging. We counsel coaches, and we teach the coaches to teach as well. Is it successful? I think it is when students leave and they’ve had a good experience, and they end up being good people. What they hopefully learn is to pass that on.

HO: You had served as the liaison to the admissions and financial aid offices and had taken on fundraising. Which is more challenging: fundraising or playing basketball?

García: Being on the court is always challenging. Fundraising for the women’s locker room was probably the easiest $75,000 I ever made. I like to fundraise. I want people to give back, so I just don’t want money but time as well. To share their stories with our student-athletes. Everybody knows I have a lot of passion. I want what’s best for St. Francis College.

HO: Tell me about a student who changed your life or affected your outlook.

García: I coached a point guard at St. Francis, Erinn Siemer. She was one of my students about 10 years ago, and she was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street in Red Bank in New Jersey. They did not think she was going to live. I rushed to the hospital, and thereafter I visited her every day. She ended up making it. I was there when she first snapped out of a coma. It was so scary. She suffered some brain damage, and we have kept in touch. She married a baseball player that attended St. Francis College, Michael Jaworsky, and they now have two beautiful kids. This taught me a couple of things about living your life and believing in yourself. For her to give life, to bring more life into the world, it teaches you about what life is really about and how valuable it is.

HO: What honor or distinction has meant the most to you?

García: The MANA. It really made me feel so special to be able to thank my parents, and I have never been able to do that in front of so many people. There were about 300 there. It stays with me. I am very humbled by all of this. I get to meet so many amazing people. It was the greatest feeling to be up there and say, “Mom and Dad, this day is because of you.”

HO: What do you do for fun?

García: I enjoy riding my bike in Central Park, and I love golf.

HO: Any other personal and professional goals?

García: I would like to go back to school and get my Ph.D. And I would like to see if I could ever become a college vice president or a president someday. 

HO: Have you told the current president about that?

García: Not yet. I would like to be just like the former president [Dr. Macchiarola] or the current president, President Brendan Dugan. They’re just great mentors and great people.

The Community College Aid Quandary

The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

It was a nagging trend that troubled Ronald Williams. The vice president of the College Board noticed that among the many obstacles preventing students, particularly Hispanic ones, from seeking higher education, there was one that simply seemed contradictory. 

Pots of financial aid were available to help many students, often lowand moderate-income ones who would likely need such assistance to attend community colleges.

But they weren’t filing for the funds.

“A number of community college students were eligible for aid but didn’t actually apply for aid,” said Williams, who previously led Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. “It struck me as really strange that so many of our students who should be aware of the fact that the government will help them get through school actually do not know this.” 

That, he said, prompted discussions on how to raise awareness about this financial aid contradiction, devise short- and longterm solutions, and ultimately improve opportunity and access for legions of incoming students.

“I think the issue really grew out of my frustration with student access,” Williams said. “When you work on a community college campus, you become conscious of something very quickly: you have students who have a lot of will, and intellectual capacities, but they face an enormous number of challenges to bring those capacities to bear on the work they need to do, and one of those challenges is access to finances.”

The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine

His instinct bore results: the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center recently issued The Financial Aid Challenge: Successful Practices that Address the Underutilization of Financial Aid in Community Colleges. The report was prepared by JBL Associates Inc. at the request of the College Board and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

The report found that although community college students are the most likely to be eligible for need-based federal aid, they are less likely than their peers at other types of institutions to file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Of considerable note, during AY 2007-08, 57.8 percent of Pell-eligible students who attended community colleges on either a full- or part-time basis applied for federal financial aid, compared with 76.8 percent of similarly eligible students attending four-year public institutions.

As open-access institutions, the nation’s public and independent community colleges and their branch campuses enroll diverse student bodies, with millions of students varying in age, sophistication, family background and income. Tuition is often low enough that students believe they can afford college without any financial help.

But, the report noted, “With less revenue per student than other types of colleges, community colleges do not always have enough staff to provide the support and help needed by their diverse student body to solve the multiple life issues and problems students may encounter.”

From fall 2007 to fall 2009, full-time enrollment at the country’s community colleges rose by 24.1 percent, according to a policy brief by the AACC. However, this growth has not always been accompanied by elevated financial support from state and local sources. “Community colleges are being asked to do more with less,” the report read.

The FAFSA, which reports on a student’s and family’s income and assets, determines a student’s ability to pay for his or her education, and thus one’s eligibility to receive federal, state and institutional grants, loans and work opportunities.

The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine

As a result of not seeking a FAFSA, and therefore not receiving any financial aid, students often are attending college part time to save money, or are working more than 20 hours each week while studying full time. Both of these actions impair students’ abilities to successfully complete a degree, experts said.

“Community college students clearly are not receiving the same level of financial aid that students in other institutions are receiving,” said Dr. George Boggs, who ended his tenure as president and CEO of the AACC in December 2010. “I don’t think financial aid offices were given a high enough priority. Leaders have put their money into the classroom primarily to offer the classes students need. I’d like to see them give more of a priority to help students be more successful.”

Education leaders describe the myriad challenges students confront when seeking aid, from not receiving consistent, early and accurate information about colleges to basic misunderstandings about financial planning for a college education.

Additionally, financial aid offices often lack sufficient human and technological resources to help students, and some groups of community college students might distrust or misunderstand government agencies that request personal information as a prerequisite for receiving aid.

“Many of the students are coming from families with parents who have are coming from countries that have gone through civil war, people from El Salvador or Nicaragua, and they have a particular concern about authority. They do not like to provide a lot of information and are nervous about contacts with bureaucracy.”

“And,” he added, “there are few things more bureaucratic than financial aid. It asks you for everything but your DNA. Think of what that means. You have populations that are nervous about government to begin with but now have to give all of this information to someone who is anonymous. Layer on top of that the challenges around illegal immigration, and they are nervous about this country in which they live.”

Chief among the concerns is often a lack of importance placed on financial aid administration at many community colleges. The report found that the colleges with stellar FAFSA submission rates approached students personally and incorporated the FAFSA filing as part of the enrollment process. So ultimately, the colleges did not wait until students initiated contact.

Nevertheless, financial aid offices encounter obstacles ranging from limited space, resources, and staff turnover to communicating with diverse populations, keeping up to date with technology and ensuring compliance with new regulations.

Additionally, college financial aid offices often struggle with resources to reach out to students who file the FAFSA but never follow up. A number of schools also aren’t connecting with students because they don’t offer financial aid services on weekends or at night, even though many part-time students have work and family obligations that keep them off campus during the day.

"The core goal is to be able to seek potential students and family members where they are, and not expect that they will be able to get to your campus,” said Dr. Charlene Dukes, who succeeded Williams as president of Prince George’s College. “It’s easy to host a financial aid night on campus. But it says something about the commitment of the community college to host events right in the community of the population of students you are hoping to attract.”

At Prince George’s, several staffers are bilingual and assigned as community liaisons, concentrating on making inroads into previously untapped neighborhoods. “Even if an individual speaks the language, you have to make sure you  are communicating
with parents and extendedfamily members,” Dukes said.

Resolving the problems begins with embracing a new mindset.

“They [college presidents] have to begin to think of the Office of Financial Aid as an outreach office as well,” Williams said. “They have to be more proactive in delivering services to students rather than reactive because of the demands that are placed on it.”

In the short term, college leaders should assess their policies and procedures surrounding financial aid administration, and determine whether they are addressing needs proactively, or reactively.

Unfortunately, Williams said, “The Office of Financial Aid is not a place where we pay a lot of attention. We don’t conceive of the Financial Aid Office as an outreach office. We see them as places where you go to get information.”

The report notes that community colleges that have greater percentages of students applying for and receiving financial aid often are providing bilingual services and materials, offering evening and weekend office hours, integrating financial aid counseling with other outreach efforts, and applying multiple approaches to convey financial aid information to all students.

Additionally, these schools employ efforts such as: using multilanguage media, online resources and local opinion leaders to raise awareness, link financial aid applications and follow up with college enrollment or registration, and coordinate activities and meet with local high school counselors to provide grade-specific information to students.

Schools highlighted in the report additionally involved the families of students when providing financial aid materials and activities, and built lists of community organizations that help students with the application process.

This latter component is one that Williams identified as pivotal toward bringing more Hispanic students into the fold, particularly as colleges develop inroads into the communities in which the students live and work. 

There also need to be stronger connections with communities, and not just high schools, to navigate additional areas in which Hispanic students and families congregate and socialize, so they can make inroads to educate and ultimately attract more informed applicants.

“You have to figure out where to go in those communities,” Williams said. “You have to gain access to communities because they are largely closed to us, and they are the people who may speak little English but are making decisions, and kids pay attention to them.”

“We need to broker a relationship not only with the schools but with the communities themselves,” Williams said. “Many Hispanic families’ decision making is still made by adults. Think of what happens when an adult does not speak the language of the host country, and you are putting lots of paper in front of that person, often not in their native language but in English.

“And,” he added, “we need to put some responsibilities on states as well, because they have broader mechanisms to provide information than individual institutions.”

Accordingly, the report points out, change must start at the top. The community college programs that have been effective in increasing the percentages of students applying for financial aid have a common factor: the presence of statewide coordination. These colleges have found support and leadership in the state’s executive offices or state higher education commissions or councils.

Additionally, state agencies and organizations have access to potential funding sources and are able to pool resources and funds under a central organization. Combining these resources across the state raises the amount of dollars available and, in the end, can make a meaningful difference for students.

“States should coordinate college access and financial aid awareness efforts and provide resources to ensure families are aware of financial aid and resources available to help them apply,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student and Financial Aid Administrators. “Basically, it is about delivering as much information in as many different ways as possible to raise awareness about financial aid resources. And then providing resources and assistance for students who struggle applying for financial aid.”

Connecticut Community Colleges

Marc Herzog, chancellor of the Connecticut Community Colleges system, said institutions should take a serious look at their financial aid offices and determine how to better assist students. Herzog’s system is one of several institutions credited in the report for adopting programs successful with addressing the many different challenges of a diverse population.

The system has streamlined its approach to handling financial aid concerns for students across its 12 campuses. For one, it created, integrated and centralized financial aid services under one system office to handle the administrative and technological functions of financial aid management across the state. The report notes that his system office has three functional staff members and three technical support staff members responsible for coordinating the financial aid policies and regulations for each campus.

A major function of this office is to offer a common technological infrastructure and internal database for the dozen colleges, so each campus’ financial aid office has access to one data system that handles day-to-day processes such as management of student records, application filing and financial aid distribution. 

Initially, individual colleges were reluctant to cede institutional authority to manage financial aid.

"There was a lot of resistance,” he conceded, with some colleges wondering, “Are you going to leave me holding the bag?” Yet there was an “incredible” amount of consultation, with financial aid officers making financial aid decisions, so the initiative gained credibility among the institutions.

“It was a collective vision, and people came together very quickly and realized that this was going to be an asset and a benefit,” Herzog said.

The result: since the formation of the centralized office in 2001, the Connecticut system has witnessed the number of students applying for and garnering aid more than double, during a period when enrollment has grown by 25 percent. In AY 2008-09, 63 percent of students in the Connecticut system applied for aid, compared with 42.5 percent of community college students nationwide.

The chancellor points out that in the 2000-01 academic year, 20,000 students applied for and 12,000 received financial aid in his system. That number has close to tripled, with 56,000 applying and 31,000 receiving aid last year. 

“Those kinds of increases have been accommodated by the system,” he said, even though financial constraints limit the ability of his and many other community colleges to hire more staff. Further, Herzog estimates that the new centralized office has saved the system nearly $2 million in salaries alone, in addition to other administrative expenses.

What Colleges Must Do

In the long term, colleges must actively promote and financially support student access programs. This begins with college leaders establishing an ongoing commitment by directing funds and staff to financial aid administration and access programs at their institutions.

Additionally, they should survey potential students to learn where they garner information about the college and financial aid before enrolling, participate in transition programs with area high schools, establish mentoring opportunities for high school students, and potentially consolidate resources with area community colleges across the state to develop a common system for financial aid administration.

The report describes successful institutions. The “I Can Afford College” effort in California targets low-income high school students to address financial aid issues early on. The “At Home in College” program boosts collaboration between New York City’s public high schools and the City University of New York’s community colleges.

The “College Goal Sunday” volunteer program established by the Indiana Student Financial Aid Association provides free information and assistance to students and families, bringing together professionals from community colleges and universities and other community volunteers to help individuals complete the FAFSA.

And Kentucky Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Department of Multiculturalism and Inclusion serves the needs of the Hispanic student population with mentoring on recruitment, financial advising and academic counseling.

Kentucky’s Hispanic population grew by 250 percent since the mid-1990s, and educational institutions at all levels have had to adjust services and programs to meet the new needs. As a result, Bluegrass made a long-term consistent effort to reach out to students and interact with them in their communities.

Not every student population is the same, and the needs will shift by region. So the report stressed that institutions should determine which recommendations work best for them.

“We’re not going to see an immediate shift to provide more resources to student services such as financial aid,” said the AACC’s Boggs. “It takes a while to raise awareness. We need to let potential students and their families know that this is a resource that is available to them, but it takes a while to get the word out and build that kind of a program.”

Added the College Board’s Williams: “We believe community colleges are going to be tremendously important – and they already are – in reshaping both the American work force and society in general. We are going to have to do something fairly dramatic with respect to our thinking and our actions. We have to figure out a way to make these opportunities available. We need to look at the things we’ve done and completely redesign them.”