By Ivonne Díaz-Claisse, HISPA Founder and CEO
The author is pictured with students from Thomas H. Dudley Family School. HISPA was able to send Role Models for Latino youth to Camden thanks to the support of Comcast.
September 15, 2015 was an exciting day for HISPA: Not only did it mark the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, but we celebrated being named a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education” by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. HISPA (Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement) was recognized for its educational programming dedicated to mobilizing Hispanic professionals to serve as role models and encourage Latino students to pursue higher education.
This honor reminds me how far we’ve come since 1993, when HISPA was an employee resource group. As part of the organization’s community outreach, I visited a local New Jersey school and shared my story, beginning with growing up in Puerto Rico as a student who loved mathematics and through the unpredictable educational and professional journey that followed.
I talked about the obstacles I faced due to a lack of role models. My high school math teacher doubted my ability; in college, a professor discouraged me from pursuing an advanced degree. Despite these challenges, I went on to earn a master’s in engineering from Cornell University, a master’s in mathematics from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Arizona State University.
My story struck a chord with the school’s growing Hispanic student population. I realized that students craved role models with whom they shared language or cultural background, someone that reminded them of their families. I also knew there were many Latino professionals like me who could also share their stories and show students that they too could achieve their dreams if they worked hard and stayed in school. This idea led me to leave the corporate world and re-envision HISPA’s mission, launching Role Model-driven educational programming in 2008.
Our work is urgent. Hispanic student success is critical not only to our community but to America’s future: Latinos make up nearly 25 percent of public school students and that number is predicted to grow to 30 percent by 2025. And though we have made progress in lowering Hispanic student dropout rates—reaching a record low 14% in 2013, down from 32% in 2000—it still remains higher than any other ethnic group. For everyone to fulfill their potential, participate in high-skilled jobs, and become key contributors to America’s future, we need to start with closing the academic achievement gap.
Our supporters clearly agree: HISPA has grown from 100 to 2,000 volunteer professionals and has reached more than 6,000 students. Our programming has expanded through New Jersey to New York City and San Antonio. And with Comcast’s support, HISPA was recently able to launch programming somewhere closer to home: Camden, NJ.
HISPA Role Models began visiting Camden’s Thomas H. Dudley Family School in 2014. This year, HISPA looks forward to continuing to enable more Latinos to step into classrooms and eradicate one key reason why our students do not pursue higher education: a lack of role models.
In Camden, where Latinos make up about half of the population, Comcast and HISPA are joining forces to open students’ eyes and show them that their dreams can be realities. I know this partnership is making a difference when, after sharing my story with Dudley School students, they approached me to ask, “Can you come and talk to us every day?”
We can’t wait to get back to sharing our stories with the children at Dudley School. Comcast is making these possibilities real for Camden students.