Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) offer opportunities for Hispanic students to enrich their academic experience. A successful program that promotes the continued growth of Latino enrollment in Higher Education is the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Hispanic-Serving Institutions National Program. The USDA partners with colleges and universities across the country with a high percentage of Latino students to provide support to faculty and students via fellowships, scholarships and internship opportunities with the federal government. HSIs are oftentimes underfunded and these programs create an opportunity for funding to allow them to continue to fulfill their missions.
A program that faculty and staff at HSIs can benefit from is the E. Kika de La Garza Fellowship Program. De la Garza was the Democratic representative from Texas that served on Congress for more than 30 years. The fellowship was established in his honor given that during his tenure, he sponsored numerous pieces of legislation related to education and agriculture. This fellowship program allows faculty and staff from HSIs to work in collaboration with the USDA to gain an insider view and understand the work of various areas and programs of the federal government.
During the year of 2012, I had the opportunity to be an E. Kika de La Garza Fellow with the USDA in Washington D.C. Through this fellowship I not only had the opportunity to grow as a professional, but I was also able to learn about the opportunities available for Latino students. Working with faculty and policy makers in the country’s capital gave me a new perspective on how stakeholders address the educational challenges faced by this community.
The fellowship also helped me to understand the role of the federal government in educational matters related to the availability of programs from K-16 and the educational policy making process since the partnership between the USDA and the other areas of the federal government is often interrelated. As a result of the fellowship and with the help of one of the USDA regional directors, I was able to return to the HSI where I work, Northeastern Illinois University, and reach out to community partners to begin programing for children and youth. I organized workshops and events to provide Latino college students information about the various opportunities related to scholarships, internships and employment opportunities available with the federal government.
Another program offered by the USDA is the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program, which “is intended to promote and strengthen the ability of HSIs to carry out higher education programs in the food and agricultural sciences.” The significance of this program is that those grants help attract Latino students to major in the STEM fields and agricultural sciences, assist with their retention by creating opportunities for individualized support, and help them complete a degree in the sciences. The remarkable goal of this program is to help Latino students to become professionals who can one day become part of the agricultural scientific workforce.
Latinos remain underrepresented in the STEM fields. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2014), “less than 2 percent of the STEM workforce is Hispanic while almost 20 percent of the country’s youth population is Hispanic.” It is important to encourage underrepresented students to go into the STEM fields early on in their education career since many of them are not exposed to these types of opportunities in elementary schools or high schools, particularly in urban settings. The Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants award allows for the creation of programs to strengthen the pipeline of Latino students to careers in the sciences since often minority students think that the only alternative to go into the sciences is to become a doctor or nurse, without realizing that there are many more opportunities.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Hispanic-Serving Institutions National Program and the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Education Grants Program are programs that have proven to make a difference for Hispanic students and those that help them in becoming successful at their respective HSI.
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Maria E. Luna-Duarte is a Ph.D. Student in Policy Studies in Urban Education & Interim Director at Northeastern Illinois University El Centro.