On her journey toward a doctorate, Reyna Flores has seen many inequities in education, specifically for marginalized and underrepresented students.
Flores, whose mother worked in the farms along the Rio Grande Valley, seldom saw students or faculty who looked like her — particularly in graduate programs — as she pursued multiple degrees.
“Some of the struggles that I’ve encountered and I’ve seen other students encounter is representation,” Flores, 35, said.
These experiences fuel her studies at the University of Texas as she pursues a career in higher education so she can support and advocate for students.
Now, seven Texas schools are among 20 universities nationwide forming the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities to further opportunities for students like Flores.
The alliance launched in early June with two goals: to double the number of Hispanic doctoral students and increase the amount of Hispanic faculty by 20% at each of the participating schools by 2030.
The state’s institutions in the alliance include the University of North Texas; Texas Tech University; the University of Houston; and the University of Texas’ schools in Arlington, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio.
“The second largest number of Hispanics in the country are in Texas,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said. “We need to do a better job as a state of making sure that we raise educational attainment rates and take advantage of all the talent we have.”
The alliance’s universities, many of which have significantly higher enrollment rates of Latino students than other colleges, are likely to become the source of faculty for other institutions around the country, noted UTEP President Heather Wilson, who is the alliance’s chair.
“It’s what makes us unique, what binds us together and what we can do together that both none of us could do alone and that other groups would also have a hard time doing,” she said.
Hispanics make up about 17% of the workforce, yet they are continually underrepresented in higher education, Wilson said in a statement.
Such students made up only 13% of the 20 universities’ doctoral graduates during the 2019-20 academic year. Less than 9.5% of the schools’ combined full-time faculty in fall 2020 were Hispanic.
Meanwhile, Latino students made up about 33% of those universities’ combined enrollment in the fall of 2020, according to federal data.
Opening the pathway to postgraduate education is one of the biggest challenges for the alliance, Wilson said. Some Hispanic students may consider a bachelor’s as the pinnacle of their education and not see much value in enrolling in a master’s or doctoral program.
UTEP has tackled this by fostering a culture of belonging and inclusion, “planting that seed that there may be something interesting to you,” Wilson noted.
All schools involved are designated as Hispanic Serving Institutions by the US Department of Education, which means that such students comprise at least 25% of the full-time student body. They are also classified as R1 schools by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which notes high research activity.
Such categorizations allow the universities to create more opportunities for undergraduate research experiences and internships that “open students’ minds to what could be possible,” encouraging a more diverse set of students to advance their education, UT-Arlington President Jennifer Cowley said.
Officials said the alliance aims to diversify the perspectives in academia and other fields. The schools’ first project, funded by a $5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, will conduct cross-regional research and train doctoral students in Latino humanities. The second initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on opportunities for Hispanic students in computer science.
One research group that includes faculty and doctoral students at UT-Arlington, for example, will study how Latino communities confront environmental injustices and adapt to extreme climate events across the country. Another will examine the political participation and activism of Chicana and Mexican women in South Texas and Arizona.
“It fits perfectly into our vision of becoming one of the nation’s most inclusive and impactful research universities,” Cowley said about the alliance’s vision.
Lucía Durá, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing studies at UTEP, said she knows what it’s like to forge your own path in higher education.
Originally from Mexico City, she said pursuing multiple degrees is intimidating and that there are multiple challenges in navigating a new environment, especially for first-generation students.
Because the alliance is trying to tackle the lack of Hispanic doctoral students and faculty by stimulating curiosity, Durá said the higher education becomes more approachable for such communities.
“How do we use research to our advantage? To make the lives of our students more interesting for them to get curious about important issues and become the next set of analytical minds out there in the world making change,” Durá said.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
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