A bridge to graduate school for Latina/o students: Where might it lead?

Veronica Luna
Doctoral Student
University of California, Berkeley

Linda Prieto, Ph.D.
Project Director
Stephan L. Jackson & Associates


The Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship Program at The University of Texas at Austin has served over 500 undergraduate students since the program's inception in 2003. A high percentage of underrepresented minorities and/or first-generation college students, 50%, participate in the program every semester, as compared to the proportion these student groups comprise in the overall undergraduate population; nearly 70% of participants are women. The model of education promoted is one of "discovery-ownership-accountability," and involves an individualized mentorship between an undergraduate student and a graduate student mentor, as well as a faculty supervisor. Data collected from 2004-2008 by program coordinators indicates that over 50% of IE interns who received their baccalaureate degree have enrolled in graduate school.

In the 2006 spring semester, Veronica Luna was an IE intern working with her mentor, doctoral student Linda Prieto. As part of their co-created goals, they pursued a shared research project that fulfilled their mutual desire to draw attention to the disproportionate enrollment rates of Latina/o students in graduate school as compared to their white counterparts. Their collaborative scholarly work resulted in an article entitled, "Mentoring Affirmations and Interventions: A Bridge to Graduate School for Latina/o Students." The article was published in the 2009 April issue of the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education. The study examined how a group of four Latina/o undergraduate participants conceptualized graduate studies during their participation in the IE program. Findings revealed that the IE experience created a bridge to graduate education by expanding their networks, demystifying academia, and fulfilling their sense of community responsibility via an advanced degree.

To affirm the program's positive long-term effects, former mentees from Veronica and Linda's study, conducted in May 2006, were interviewed for this report. Two of the four original respondents completed a survey questionnaire, which focused on understanding how educational and career choices, capacity to build networks, and demystification of graduate study continue to be informed by the program experience. The findings from the survey are presented below.

Where are they now?

Claudia and Angela participated as mentees in the program in spring 2006 during their senior year; both graduated in May 2006. Claudia completed a B.A. in Psychology (Pre-Law) with a minor in Spanish, as well as a Finance Certification. Angela graduated with a B.A. in Anthropology and Sociology, with minors in Spanish and Mexican-American Studies. Three years after participating in the IE Pre-Graduate Internship program, the IE philosophy is evident in their accomplishments and aspirations.

In Luna and Prieto (2009), Claudia poignantly stated, "The only inheritance they [my parents] can leave me is not money; the only inheritance they can leave me with is [an] education." Since graduation, Claudia has experienced career advancement at the Texas Office of the Governor, from Intern to Research Specialist II. She is also in the process of applying to law school, as she projected three years ago. Her near completion of a Business Foundations certificate through the UT-Austin Extension Program demonstrates her continued commitment to higher education. Claudia's desire to empower her home community is exemplified by her current roles as a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor, financial literacy volunteer, and administrative employee for her parent's business in Houston, TX.

After working in the non-profit sector for two years after graduation, Angela is now pursuing a Ph.D., and eventually hopes to obtain a professoriate position. She serves as a school volunteer, and is employed as a program evaluator at an educational non-profit organization. Angela believes, "The IE program experience and my mentor's guidance directly shaped my educational/career decisions in a very positive way. Above all, I am more passionate, knowledgeable, and confident in my academic interests and sense of purpose."

Claudia and Angela's post-program educational trajectory suggest the IE program played a positive, solidifying role in their path to graduate school. The following sections look at how the experience positively shaped their network building and conceptualizations of graduate school. 

Building Networks

All four respondents in Luna & Prieto (2009) report that the IE mentorship helped them overcome barriers to networking in academia and make connections they viewed as important to exploring graduate studies. Claudia and Angela have continued communication with their graduate student mentors since participating in the program. Claudia feels, "She [mentor] is always a phone call away to help me." She shares how their relationship continues to have capacity-building benefits for her, particularly regarding her research skills and resourcefulness, "The research skills I learned from my mentor are skills I use in my work, organizations, and future aspirations. Also, when you're unsure, ask questions because you learn from other's experience."

Angela reports the IE mentorship continues to greatly benefit her, and the pair has maintained communication. She describes one example of their interaction, "When I was selecting a graduate program, I sought her support. Her candid insight was helpful, and I was able to make an informed decision that considered the pros and cons." Angela adds, "The [IE] program helped me feel capable in being resourceful and confident in making contacts. I will hopefully have the ability to seek out support to meet all the challenges of graduate study."

Demystifying Graduate Studies

Informants from Luna & Prieto (2009) reported gaining a better understanding of the efforts involved in graduate study, and benefited from a guided process of researching graduate programs. These findings affirm the program's objective to encourage intellectual entrepreneurship, an attitude still evident in the former mentees' responses.

Claudia continues to draw on the IE experience to sustain her graduate school goals through uncertainty. In her own words, she states:

IE program experiences have taught me to lay out a plan to reach my educational/career aspirations. I learned that I shouldn't be overwhelmed with the future because I am not alone. Having a mentor, you learn to discuss and discover options. You learn how to analytically view pros and cons to help make decisions. But best of all, that you should follow your dreams and passion. I am a testimony to this as a first-generation Salvadorian American; I am the first in my family to graduate from a university. Soon, first to graduate from law school.

Angela reports that her participation in the program "strongly influenced" her decision to pursue a doctorate degree, and continues to help her thrive. She describes, "I believe that if I had not participated in the IE program, I would have struggled to apply to graduate school, and not made the transition to graduate studies as successfully." This update by former mentees three years after their participation suggests the program experience and continued effects demystify graduate study.


For the two Latina/o undergraduate students who participated in our initial study three years ago, the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship program experience served as an "entrepreneurial incubator", which may have large-scale implications for increasing the proportion of underrepresented groups in the graduate school pipeline. Claudia summarizes, "As times are changing we [students] have to be prepared, and the best way to do that is through the continuation of education. Knowledge is a powerful tool." Angela adds, "It meant a great deal to have had this form of mentoring at a critical time in my educational journey. I wish more racial minority students had access to this scarce resource." We hope the information provided in this report highlights the need for undergraduate mentoring programs that focus on the experiences, strengths, and needs of ethnic minority and first-generation college students.


Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, The University of Texas at Austin. IE Pre-Graduate School Internship: Fact Sheet. Retrieved August 6, 2009, from http://www.ut-ie/articles/factsheet.pdf.
Luna, V., & Prieto, L. (2009). Mentoring Affirmations and Interventions: A Bridge to Graduate School for Latina/o Students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 8(2), 213-224.