Whether you are a parent, business, government or community leader or policy official—the responsibility to ensure future generations are equipped with the tools they need to succeed and to help our nation succeed is yours. The economic progress of our country and its global competitiveness is inextricably linked to the classroom. As the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group, Latinos make up more than 22 percent of all Pre-K through 12th grade students—this means that nearly one in four students in America’s classrooms is Latino. Providing Latino students with a high quality, comprehensive education ensures that a large percentage of our population will be college and career ready. Presidential Administrations since 1990 have renewed the Executive Order of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics as a commitment to our domestic policy agenda.
This fall, the Initiative will celebrate its 25th anniversary. To commemorate this historic milestone, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helped launch the “Anniversary Year of Action: Fulfilling America’s Future.” As part of this effort, the Initiative is encouraging public and private sectors to invest in increasing educational outcomes and opportunities for Hispanics across the country through “Commitments to Action.” T hese Commitments are investments that will move the needle toward progress—from cradle to career—and help bring critical resources and supports to communities that are working tirelessly to close the achievement and opportunity gaps for Hispanic students and families. We aim to cultivate Commitments that address the specific and priority needs of Latino students in areas such as increasing access to and participation in high-quality early learning programs, supporting integrated K-12 student services that strengthen academic performance and dramatically increase high school graduation, improving access to and participation in STEM education, making college affordable and accessible to ensure Latino students not only enter but complete college, and increasing opportunities for Latinos to enter the teaching profession.
Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to witness a community take collective action to launch the El Monte Promise Foundation’s Scholar Savings Program in El Monte, California. Through the collective effort of parents, educators, business leaders and elected officials, the Scholar Savings Program raises the bar on expectations of and equips parents with important and necessary financial literacy tools to help them save for their children’s college education. Parents of El Monte Union High School District first graders opened college savings accounts, transforming their children’s futures by investing in their child’s education and making a college education within reach. With the support of private foundations, business leaders and the local community—scholarship dollars are earned as parents make monthly deposits to their savings accounts and later given to the students upon high school graduation and enrollment in college or a university. The launch of programs such as these is transformational and inspirational. This dual generation approach empowers parents to play a key role in the education of their children and encourages students to dream big. This example embodies the Initiative’s very spirit of Commitments to educational excellence.
The Initiative is making it a priority to convene and collaborate with stakeholders like the El Monte Promise Foundation, interested in better aligning public and private funds around shared priorities and making concrete Commitments to invest in the future of Hispanic students. While we have seen progress in Hispanic high school graduation and college entrance rates, our work is not yet finished. At only 15.7 percent of degree completion for bachelors or higher, we need more communities to follow the City of El Monte’s lead and invest in strategies that will ensure successful outcomes for their Latino students from Pre-K through 20 and beyond.
Education is the civil rights issue of our generation. It remains the key to economic growth and prosperity for our country. In order for the Latino community to lead us forward in the 21st century and beyond, we must do all that we can to ensure every Latino student has the opportunity to learn, grow and meet his or her fullest potential. The Initiative’s call to action provides the country with an opportunity to come together in support of advancing progress for the largest, youngest, and arguably the fastest growing population in the nation.
By 2020, an estimated two-thirds of new jobs will require at least some postsecondary education or training. Over the next several years, our nation will need to educate and train more Americans to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to compete in our growing economy and to ensure our nation has a strong middle class. It is our collective responsibility to invest in meaningful, lasting approaches that will increase access and success for Latino students from cradle-to-career. You have a role to play in the Initiative’s Anniversary Year of Action. Join us in providing Latino students with the world class education they deserve. Visit ED.gov/HispanicInitiative to learn more about joining the call to action to make a Commitment that will bring the Latino community and the nation closer to fulfilling America’s future.
Alejandra Ceja is the Executive Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Children are born naturally curious. They ask questions about why things exist, how things work, what things do. That sense of wonder doesn’t end at any particular age. As a teenager living near the Panama Canal, I drew regular inspiration from one of history’s major engineering feats. Throughout my high school career, I observed the completion of the Centennial Bridge – the Canal’s second – and by graduation, my family was one of thousands benefitting from the increased access to the countryside. Witnessing the completion of such a major project reinforced my interest in math and science and ultimately engineering.
My curiosity and interests weren’t unusual for a Hispanic student, but statistically, far fewer minority children pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Of the practicing engineers and scientists in the U.S., a mere four percent of engineers are Hispanic. With more than 53 million people of Hispanic descent living in the U.S., there is a lack of diversity in the STEM fields – even at a time when the U.S. is facing a shortage of technical talent.
Studies show that Latino children express the same interest and excitement about becoming an engineer, or entering a STEM field, as their peers do. Nevertheless, they – for lack of support, role models or funding – fail to pursue it as a viable career path, or they give up on their dreams once on the path.
The question remains: How do we address this issue?
For me, I believe a big part of the burden falls on practicing engineers. Teachers and parents certainly have a major influence on the decisions students make, and mine were no exception. But those of us in the field – those of us applying the knowledge gained from our STEM education – need to help introduce the next generation to the possibilities that come with our exciting line of work. We can’t rely on chance or expect our projects and their impact on society to speak for us.
We need to reward interest, desire and skill by ensuring that Latino students have access to the right educational opportunities and have mentors in the field. To do so, engineers need to work directly with teachers. We need to prepare these young people to compete in growing STEM fields by providing their teachers and parents with access to engineers who can expose students to all the fields have to offer. We need to replace barriers to success with the resources necessary to ensure teachers and parents have access to engineers and enough knowledge about the field to encourage students – especially minority students – to pursue engineering.
For too long, we have assumed students who are interested in STEM would end up in the right careers, when in actuality, engineers need to teach the next generation more about what we do. Engineers – myself included – need to be role models and provide resources to assist students as they explore the many possibilities that come with a career in engineering.
Efforts such as Be An Engineer are a step in the right direction. Through the support of ExxonMobil, the multi-faceted initiative is highlighting the people who thrive and succeed in STEM careers so that students can see not only the diversity of career options, but the diversity of the individuals who are succeeding in the profession. Be An Engineer also provides resources to assist students and their parents as they explore the many possibilities that come with a career in engineering. It’s equally important to teach the next generation more about not only what engineers do, but who we are. So many students already have the curiosity. We just need to help them apply it and present ourselves as role models and mentors with whom they can identify and connect.
Omar De Leon is a Technical Regulatory Advisor at ExxonMobil Development Company. A version of this column appears on HuffPost Impact.