Starting Early

Heriberto Reynoso, 21, is a junior majoring in computer science at the University of Texas at Brownsville and recently discovered he was selected as an intern for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Ambitious, talented, and determined, Heriberto is positioning himself to capture one of the leading jobs in the country. A Hispanic College Fund Scholar, he embodies the future success of our nation.

In order for us benefit from more students like Heriberto, however, we must overcome serious obstacles. Two distinct, yet related, problems face the nation: the lack of Hispanics graduating from high school and college, and their under-representation in science technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. Exposing Hispanic students to STEM careers at an early age as a means to propel them through high school and college will serve as a common solution to both issues.

The mission of the Hispanic College Fund is to develop the next generation of Hispanic professionals, particularly in STEM. Between 30,000 and 40,000 new students register each year to complete an online scholarship application. Of those students awarded a scholarship from the Hispanic College Fund, more than half are majoring in STEM fields. These statistics illustrate the demand for STEM education among Hispanic students, as well as the existing pool of Latino talent in these fields. However, national statistics consistently reflect under-representation of Hispanics in STEM careers. How, then, can we ensure that Hispanics are capturing the jobs that will advance the U.S. in the global workforce of the 21st century?

It is first important to look generally at the situation of Hispanics in higher education. Virginia provides a clear example of the challenges facing the nation as a whole. Virginia Governor Timothy M. Kaine has highlighted an alarming example of low enrollment rates among Hispanic students in his state. While serving as the keynote speaker at the 2008 Hispanic College Fund Scholarship Awards Gala, Governor Kaine stated that Hispanics (who by 2018 will account for 18 percent of students in grades K-12) represent only 2 percent of students currently enrolled in institutions of higher education. If Virginia hopes to increase the percentage of Hispanics going into local STEM careers, the push for high school and college retention in the area must continue.

Helping Hispanic high school students enter college and succeed while there first requires building their confidence that college is attainable. During the Hispanic College Fund’s summer college access programs, the Hispanic Youth Symposia, students are exposed to careers in business and STEM through workshops, activities, and mentorship with Hispanic professionals and community leaders. Before attending our program, ninety percent of high school students state an interest in attending college yet eighty percent say that they do not know how to access or afford it. After attending our program, 95 percent report that they intend to go to college, 90 percent report a full understanding of college applications, finances and FASFA, and many later receive scholarships from the Hispanic College Fund.

The key to our program’s success is showing students, in a hands-on way, how STEM education translates into an exciting career, like building robots for NASA, as Heriberto will experience in his internship. Applying this method throughout all major cities in the U.S. would not only increase the long-term representation of Hispanics in STEM careers, but it would also improve retention rates of Hispanics in high school and college. At the Hispanic College Fund we have seen, time and again, that when a student is inspired by a career path and has the tools to pursue it, she will walk the full path to success, from high school, to college, to career.

During these uncertain economic times, in our discussions on the demands of the global workforce, it is important to keep in mind the value of education and diversity, both of which create exponential returns on our investment. The solution to increasing the efficiency and quality of STEM fields in the U.S., as well as diversifying our workforce, starts with exposing Hispanic students to STEM careers as a means to drive them through high school and college.

Fernando Barrueta has served is the CEO of the Hispanic College Fund.