Passion for Education

José Díaz-Balart doesn’t hold back. He’s passionate about the stories he covers as the anchor for Noticiero Telemundo, about the in-depth discussions on his Sunday public affairs program Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart, and about his new role reaching an entirely different audience on MSNBC’s 10 AM hour Live from Miami. He has won numerous awards and accolades in his 30-year career, and is actually making history these days as an anchor for two newscasts in different languages. At home in both worlds, he is unique among journalists in the U.S., and one issue he feels particularly strong about is education.

“It is one of the real passions of my life,” he told LATINO Magazine. “One can get so much out of learning.” Earlier this year, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) honored the journalist with its Ruben Salazar Award in Los Angeles. The award recognized communications professionals who are dedicated to portraying news relevant to U.S. Hispanics. “I am very honored and deeply humbled to receive this recognition,” Díaz-Balart said. “It reaffirms the idea that journalists can be a force for good, as Rubén Salazar was, and all of us who see our professions as a way to serve every day.” In October, Díaz-Balart’s will also receive the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s (CHCI) Medallion of Excellence Award in Washington, DC. According to the CHCI, Díaz Balart’s “passion for giving back to the community” made him deserving of this recognition.

Díaz-Balart’s dual role as an anchor on both networks shows the importance of diversity not just at Telemundo and MSNBC, but at their corporate parents, NBCUniversal and Comcast. “It’s a way to contribute to the national discourse with a foot in each language, reaching different audiences,” he said.

One of the ways that Díaz-Balart has contributed is by supporting programs that bring internet access to all, particularly to those most in need. One of them is Internet Essentials, a Comcast initiative that is already in its third year. It is the largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program in the U.S, providing low-cost broadband service for $9.95 a month and the option to buy a computer for less than $150. The only requirement is an income threshold where at least one child is eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and it applies to all households regardless of whether those children are in private, parochial, private or charter schools, or even homeschooled, and continues until the youngest child in the household graduates from high school. Program materials are available in Spanish and 13 other languages, free of charge to schools and non-profit organizations.

“There is no catch, no strings attached,” says Jackie Puente, Comcast’s Director of External Affairs. “There are so many benefits to being online. We’ve heard from so many fathers and mothers about how this allows them to spend more time with their families instead of going to the library to use the computer. It’s heartbreaking to know that there are students who don’t have access to online at home.”

Puente says the program has so far helped some 350,000 households, representing nearly two million people nationwide.  And it’s not just about connecting households to the Internet. The program also includes online safety training.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of support in the Latino community. Education is the most important issue for the Latino community, and families understand internet access is what they need to have their child succeed at school. José has been a tremendous champion. He has children and he knows that families need broadband to do well in school, and to connect with family members who aren’t around the corner.”

Puente says they hope to expand the program to cities currently not serviced by Comcast, including New York and Los Angeles. If the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is approved, many more Latino families would benefit from the low-cost access to the internet, says Puente.

“We’re ready to do it from day one. While 60 percent of Latinos have access to broadband at home, 40 percent still do not. Every family we reach is a small victory. With the merger, we would reach 78% of Latino households nationwide.”

Díaz-Balart has also put his passion for education into support for a greater number of Latinos entering the STEAM (STEM plus the arts) fields as the education champion for Telemundo’s new STEAM initiative, Aprender es Triunfar (Learning is Succeeding). While Hispanics represent the nation’s fastest-growing population group, just a fraction are in these fields.

Díaz-Balart been actively involved trying to change those numbers, and has been for a number of years been participating in the HESTEC (Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology) program at the University of Texas-Pan American in the Rio Grande Valley, which was created 13 years ago under the direction of Congressman Rubén Hinojosa.

“STEM careers are the jobs of the future and those students who graduate with degrees in STEM fields will be the ones who contribute to our country’s economic stability and national strength,” said Hinojosa. “Anyone who has participated in HESTEC at UTPA throughout the years understands that STEM careers build a robust middle class. We need to focus, now more than ever, on preparing Latinos for those jobs so that they too can share in economic prosperity and provide for their families.”

One interesting project that tells the story of the impact of STEM on a group of Latino students is Underwater Dreams, a film narrated by actor Michael Peña which describes how a group of low-income Mexican-American high schoolers in Arizona, all sons of immigrants, learned to build an underwater robot using parts they bought at Home Depot, and ending up beating a team from MIT in a robotics competition.  It all started when two high school science teachers in a Latino neighborhood decided to enter a competition sponsored by NASA and four students signed up. They thought a robot that worked underwater would be a great idea, but they were told their design wouldn’t work without some materials that the students couldn’t afford to buy. They brainstormed and forged ahead anyway, using PVC pipe, duct tape, and tampons to stop any leaks underwater, beating the much more sophisticated Ivy League entries.

“It’s an underdog tale, but it’s much more complex than that,” said producer Mary Mazzio. “The film shows the incredible talent and remarkable young people we have in this country. There is a desperate need for those who will fuel us globally as a nation.”

Mazzio adds that the students’ participation in the robotics competition changed the culture of the school and showed them what is possible. “We need more kids who don’t look the part, who are working in STEM. This film shows it can be done. They did what no one thought was possible.”

MSNBC and Telemundo simultaneously premiered a television version of the film in July.

“Underwater Dreams,” adds Díaz-Balart, “is the ultimate ‘David versus Goliath’ story, with voices that are not usually heard in the mainstream. It represents the dreams of so many young people.”

Underwater Dreams is scheduled to be shown across the country in close to 100 community screenings. The film is a major component of NBCUniversal’s Hispanic Enterprises nationwide campaign, Aprender es Triunfar (To Learn is to Succeed), aimed at closing the Latino student achievement gap, especially in STEM education. “What is a more beautiful concept than ‘to learn is to win’?” asks Díaz-Balart.

It’s a very inspirational film and shows kids that they can do anything,” adds Raquel (Rocky) Egusquiza, Vice President of Community Affairs, Hispanic Enterprises and Content at NBCUniversal. “The top issue in the Latino community is jobs, and STEM fields is where the jobs of the future are.”

The Aprender es Triunfar campaign also includes PSAs featuring Díaz-Balart discussing STEM, monthly news segments and a website expected to go live in the fall, as well as a back-to-school distribution of thousands of Aprender es Triunfar backpacks to students in key Hispanic markets with school supplies and information about opportunities in STEM, including Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Houston.

“Part of this campaign is to show the diversity of careers available with STEM degrees and show that STEM can apply to many different fields,” says Egusquiza. “For example, when you study engineering, you learn problem solving and those are skills that are applicable across a wide range of job opportunities.”

Another first for Diaz-Balart  came when he got a cooler filled with ice water dunked on him in a bilingual video that also featured Telemundo anchor and host Maria Celeste Arrarás. Díaz-Balart took the Ice Bucket Challenge to honor  his father-in-law, Charles Brown, who died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“I am so happy to have had the opportunity to help raise awareness and, equally as important, contributions to fight ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge,” Díaz-Balart said.

A Miami native, Diaz-Balart comes from a storied political family with deep roots in Cuba. His father, Rafael Diaz-Balart y Gutierrez, was a well-known Cuban politician. This runs in the family, with brothers Lincoln (a former Congressman)  and Mario (currently in Congress).

Díaz-Balart is married with two daughters, and says he gets a lot of his energy from his family. “When I think of all that I am doing, I think about my parents. They left everything behind when they came here. They sacrificed and worked hard to give us a better life, and giving back and getting involved runs in the family.”

By Patricia Guadalupe