Dare to Dream

“Get a good education and maybe you can become an astronaut!” There used to be a time in our Hispanic culture when that statement was met with rolling eyes, and a sarcastic “Sure” response. It was something that was not attainable for us. Now, the answer a Latino or Latina student might give would be the same, saying “Sure” but this time they mean it. We know now this is not just a dream anymore, it is a real possibility.

When I first came to Washington as a freshman Congressman, I quickly made the expansion of educational opportunities a top priority on my agenda. I firmly believed that if we could boost educational attainment, raise high school graduation rates, and make college more affordable then we could accelerate economic growth and improve the quality of life for our region’s residents.

My belief in the opportunities provided by a good education was so ingrained in me that in 2001, I met with the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) to explore ways to introduce Hispanic students to the careers of the future in fields of math, science, technology and engineering. Through all of the meetings, planning and discussions we developed Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Week, better known as HESTEC.

Since its inception in 2002 more than 35,000 pre-college students have participated in HESTEC conferences which are geared to inspire students at an early age to pursue the exciting careers in the STEM fields. One of the most popular workshops for students is Robotics Day. This year, 60 teams of 5 students each, built unique robots which they demonstrated to an awed crowd of thousands.

In addition to influencing students, more than 8,350 teachers have attended HESTEC hands-on workshops in which they learn new teaching concepts and how to motivate students to pursue a career in STEM fields.

Now in its tenth year, HESTEC has also proven its ability to make sure our students receive the right tools to succeed academically. Through its success, HESTEC has now become a role model for other educational institutions around the country. HESTEC has put Hispanic Serving Institutions on the map for educational excellence.

When HESTEC first began, I could never imagine that tens of thousands of students and their families would experience the world of STEM fields. UTPA has record enrollment numbers in its engineering program and has surpassed previous numbers of graduates with degrees in STEM fields.

According to The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education 2010, UTPA is 2nd in the nation in the number of bachelor’s degrees, 4th in the number of masters degrees and 19th in the number of doctoral degrees awarded to Hispanics. In national rankings UTPA is 2nd in the nation for bachelors degrees awarded to Hispanics in the fields of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Health Sciences and Mathematics. UTPA ranks 10th in the nation in awarding a bachelors degree in engineering to Hispanics. UTPA once again made the Forbes 2010 list of “America’s Best Colleges.”

HESTEC at UTPA has attracted some of the most important and dynamic people from our nation. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Michael Dell President and founder of Dell Computers, Astronaut Jose Hernandez, the Presidents of Exxon and Shell corporations, Congressmen Silvestre Reyes, Henry Cuellar and Raul Grijalva have all participated in the week long event. They have encouraged and enlightened students and teachers on how important STEM fields are to our country and our livelihood in the global arena.

HESTEC has become a key ingredient in ensuring South Texas’ future prosperity. Increasingly, it is also catching the attention of our leaders in Washington. While America has long been at the forefront of technological discovery, recent reports show that if we do not attract more of our best and brightest to STEM fields, we may lose our competitive edge on a global level.

We must strive to stay ahead and the way to do this is to make certain our children are well educated in the same fields in which other countries are trying to out pace the USA. To date, HESTEC has raised $2 million for student scholarships. On Community Day, which is the last day of HESTEC, students bring their families to see what new and exciting things they are learning. Since HESTEC began, over 365,000 people have attended! HESTEC is becoming a mainstay in Deep South Texas.

HESTEC has truly developed into a model that proves how collaborations between communities, businesses, and education institutions can help us maintain our dominance in science and technology and improve the livelihoods of all of our citizens and keep America competitive in the global economy. We must stay on this course to a new and brighter future for our children. Dare to dream of being an astronaut, a scientist, a doctor, a mathematician or an engineer. The world is yours!

By Congressman Rubén Hinojosa