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Nurturing Latino Educational Opportunities

by Gregory Vincent and Sarita Brown
Austin American-Statesman
May 20, 2009

UT Austin's Class of 2009 bears strong resemblance to past graduating classes. Eager to make their way despite economic instability, ongoing wars and the global flu pandemic, these students are filled with palpable excitement and energy to enrich America's future - a timeless trait of students in their caps and gowns.

But this year's class is also different in one visible way. As the United States population becomes more diverse, so is UT's student body. This trend has been particularly pronounced with Latinos. Nationwide, the Hispanic population grew by 104 percent from 1990-2007; in Texas, where Latinos always were a presence, it doubled, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

While President Obama's election prompted some to declare this a "post-racial" era, when it comes to higher education, that lens is premature. Research, as well as personal experience, shows that race and ethnicity do matter. Paying attention to differences while working to engage and serve all Americans is the hallmark of the most effective higher education reform efforts.

A new report from Excelencia in Education, Leading in a Changing America: Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions, shows how some colleges and universities have found innovative ways to significantly increase the successful participation of "non-traditional" students: those that are part-time, lower-income, commuting, older and students of color. Most Hispanic students fit these categories and they thrive with culturally relevant support and scheduling that addresses the realities of their lives.

Census projections estimate that Hispanics will make up 22 percent of the nation's college-age population by 2020. Even now, the median age for all Hispanics in Texas is only 27 years old compared to 40 for non-Hispanic whites. The time for investing in and implementing proven strategies to nurture Latino talent is now.

One program at UT Austin, recognized by Excelencia in Education in 2008, is leading the way: UT's "Intellectual Entrepreneurship" pre-graduate internship program encourages students to see themselves as both scholars and entrepreneurs, and to make connections between what they learn in the classroom and their own real-world interests. It has already shown promise: Latino students make up the largest group in the program and more than half of them subsequently enroll in graduate school. It turns out that the spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship resonates with the need of many minority and first-generation students to find a balance between the world of intellectual pursuits and practical application.

Columnist William Raspberry explained the success of the program this way: "When you're from a minority community, or you're the first member of your family to attend college, you're likely to see such a withdrawal from the rough and tumble of everyday problems as dereliction. You may be very bright and capable of learning at the highest levels, but you also feel a sense of responsibility. We're saying you don't have to choose between them."

Jose Miguel Torres participated in the IE Program this spring and described how it helped him decide to pursue an advanced degree: "While I was enthusiastic about graduate school, I now had the problem of figuring it all out in terms of what I wanted to do and how I was to get there. As a first generation college student I've needed to convince my family that today more than just a four-year college experience is needed. Through the IE program, I feel as certain as ever that I not only need but also want to pursue an education in law."

The IE program at UT Austin is just one of many innovative strategies that institutions of higher education across the state and the country are using to harness the enormous potential of our burgeoning young Latino population. But there are challenges: Our country is socialized to think in narrow, prescribed ways about what the college experience should be. That picture is out of focus for far too many college going students.

The Latino community is one of the country's youngest populations. By implementing strategies to help them succeed in higher education, we will develop strategies that serve all students well and thus insure that Texas remains competitive in the global marketplace.

A country's most precious resource is its human capital. By engaging this fast growing segment of our population in higher education our country can be at its best, strengthened by the energy of millions of college graduates eager to enrich America's future.

Gregory Vincent is Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement at UT. Sarita Brown, a UT alumna and past employee, is President of Excelencia in Education in Washington, D.C.