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A Passion for Education

Congressman Ruben Hinojosa will not take no for an answer. First elected to Congress in 1996 from the 15th District of Texas, he rapidly distinguished himself as a tireless champion for the disadvantaged. He was determined to bring high-paying jobs to his predominatly rural district, which stretches from the Rio Grande Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. As he notes in the interview below, in 1997 the unemployment rate was 22 percent. Now, it’s 6 percent.

Congressman Hinojosa (above with Sec. Solis) is equally well-known as an advocate for education, but he does more than give inspiring speeches. In 2007 he was appointed Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and was instrumental in passing the historic College Cost Reduction and Access Act, the largest single increase in student financial aid since the GI Bill. In 2008, he ushered through Congress the first reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 10 years, including a provision for a $100 million program for graduate studies at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).

As Congress debated the issue of health care reform, he took time to talk with LATINO Magazine about a unique program he founded called HESTEC (see Nuestro Futuro, p. 38) and the challenges and opportunities facing the Latino community in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field.

Congressman Hinojosa, would you tell our readers about HESTEC and how it began?

Eight years ago, we launched a program that took us a year to develop, so I guess I have to go back nine years. As a member of the Education and Labor Committee, I heard members of Congress wanting to address the gap that we had because so many of our engineers were retiring and we couldn’t replace them. So we started recruiting engineers from India, China, South Korea and many other countries. My feeling was that we should be investing in American students, men and women in our country who have the potential, and particularly Latinos and Latinas… . That was the information I took back to one of the universities in the 15th Congressional District in South Texas---UT Pan American in Edinburgh.

The president, Dr. Miguel Nevares, listened to me with great interest and said, “Well, how can we play a part?” And I said that if you partner with me…we can develop a program that will help recruit and help retain students in college until they graduate in one of these fields, and let’s call it HESTEC, for Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology Week. Let’s do it Sunday through Saturday and invite parents to come and listen, with their children, to engineers from throughout the U.S, representing ExxonMobil, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and all these different companies who are anxious to hire good engineers and scientists, mathematicians and physicists. Dr. Nevares said ,“Count us in, and we will follow your lead.”

Since then, HESTEC has grown tremendously. What direction do you see it growing in the next nine years and beyond?

The beauty of the program is that I set it up as a demonstration project, knowing that I could prove it would work. It does, because we’ve already produced over 1,000 graduate college students in engineering alone. So I said, “Why don’t we take it nationally?” And as the chairman of the Higher Education Committee, which I have served on now for three years, I convinced 50 members of Congress that it should be offered as a national program under the acronym YES, which stands for Youth Engaged in STEM. And that was passed not only in the Committee, but also on the House floor. And consequently, in 2010 we should already develop the guidelines for a competitive system whereby ten colleges and universities from throughout the land will duplicate what we do in HESTEC. …

We’ve asked for $20 million to be able to give to the colleges that win in the competition, and then they will match it dollar for dollar. We give them a million, they raise a million. How do they raise it? From stakeholders… and corporate America. Just like the ones that have helped us in HESTEC.

Could you talk about how these companies came to support HESTEC and how
that’s working out?

It was just a matter of inviting them to come to take a look at HESTEC and the model. And I explained to them that this would be how we could fill the pipeline from junior high all the way to college, to graduation. But that they needed to be involved as a sponsor, because it takes money to be able to bring 100,000 people to a campus during that one week. I also said you could offer summer programs to some of our freshmen and sophomores in colleges, so that they could see how your respective corporation works, and they will shadow other engineers and mathematicians and physicists and scientists. As a result of that, they may consider working for you. And the first one to jump in with a $100,000 scholarship was Boeing. They presented that at the first HESTEC. And then came Exxon Mobil, and they put in $125 million nationally to be able to train and certify teachers that would teach in the Advanced Placement through International Baccalaureate programs and programs that are very rigorous and get them college -ready, so that they will succeed one they get started in college. [ExxonMobil CEO] Rex Tillerson was one of our speakers.

In your speeches, you’ve mentioned needing 100,000 more engineers by 2020. How can we close the gap?

President Clinton and Vice President Gore spoke about the need to increase of students graduating in STEM fields who were born and raised in the U.S. so that we would not be dependent on other countries such as China, India, and South Korea. South Korea has a 99 percent literacy rate. They also have, I believe, 99 percent graduating from high school. Eighty percent of those students go on to college, and they earn different kinds of bachelor’s degrees. But many of them are in the area of STEM.

Bottom line is, I agreed with Clinton and Gore when I first heard them talk about setting a goal of closing the gap and training an additional 100,000 engineers over and above the numbers that we are graduating each year. Go to Princeton, go to Harvard, go to Yale, go to Stanford, go to Berkeley, go to the University of Texas A&M, the University of Texas in Austin, and of course ours, UT Pan American, and you’ll see how we are producing a lot of engineers, but we need more.

Unfortunately, the image many young Latinos have of STEM is a guy in a white lab coat. How do we rebrand STEM to make it more exciting?

Every one of these companies that are listed in the HESTEC program are good examples of people hiring engineers. Take food processing, for example---we need engineers who can lay out the production lines for meat products that are sold in grocery stores and restaurants, that are sent out to feed our troops and feed our school lunch program students.

That’s just one case. But look at engineering for the automobile industry, look at the engineers who are giving us some of the technology that gives us laptop computers, real small ones. In fact, I have one sitting behind my desk and there are some smaller than that. We want to talk about the engineers who are developing not only the computer hardware, but the software programs.

Then you go into research. We need researchers in health. Now we’re talking about the biggest health reform in our country’s history. We need doctors who can use robotics. And who invents robotics? The engineers. And if you look at the airline industry, think of how many engineers are required in that industry. It’s numerous industries that are calling for engineers or technicians with associate degrees from two-year colleges. All of these.

Looking back at your own career, what led to your passion for education?

I have a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. I love business, and in the business that I was in, which was food processing, we had a lot of engineers. I then went and got a Master’s in Business Administration at UT Pan American, which is my alma mater, but I did that 15 years later. And so, I knew that there was a big demand in something other than seasonal farmworkers because I come from an agricultural region that depended on farm jobs. And I wanted to create better-paying jobs. I wanted to reduce the double-digit unemployment rate of that region of 22 percent, which is the rate we had in 1997. Today it’s six percent. It’s because we’ve created educational opportunites that lead to high-paying jobs.