• Ernesto Nieto ‘64

Ernesto Nieto SU ’64 is the president and founder of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), a leading international organization dedicated to fostering future leaders for the global Hispanic community. Recently, The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) presented Nieto with the Allen P. Splete Award, a distinguished award presented in recognition of significant contributions to independent higher education.

Nieto is a distinguished Southwestern alumnus and the 1994 recipient of the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. He is a University Trustee who continues to make a difference in the lives of thousands of Latinos across the globe. His leadership, dedication and devotion to his community and family are inspiring and motivational.

Early Life

Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, Nieto’s childhood was filled with stories of tragedy and human suffering. He attended high school at Jefferson Davis High School in Houston, where he experienced racial discrimination firsthand. Because he was a good athlete he escaped some of the racially-motivated taunting, but he saw how his non-athletic friends were treated and grew to resent it. The inequality made him angry, and planted the seed for him to be part of the civil rights movement and create change.

Time at Southwestern

Nieto started off at the University of Houston, but transferred to Southwestern his sophomore year on a full basketball scholarship. He caught a Greyhound bus headed toward Georgetown, where he was one of only a handful of Latino students at the school. Education was always important to Nieto. “I loved basketball, but knew I wasn’t going to play in the NBA. Getting that degree was important to me.”

At Southwestern, he was exposed to a different social and racial climate. He understood that he was privileged to be here, but soon discovered that “my classmates and I were from completely different worlds. They had no idea of where I came from or my community back home.” He came face to face with the realities of what he didn’t have. He realized that he was part of the “other America.”

But he persisted, focusing on his studies and athletics. He developed meaningful friendships and was mentored by faculty and coaches, some of whom became like a second family.

In addition to academics and athletics, Nieto developed the critical thinking skills that helped him succeed in his career and in life. “One of the benefits of a liberal arts college is learning to take data and integrate it into a worldview,” he says. “I learned to think differently and develop an opinion. My education at SU was more than memorizing facts and figures. I developed the skills to make sense of data and engage in thought training.”

However, he’s careful not to sugarcoat his college experience. “I was exposed to so many things and met wonderful people that had a long-lasting impact on my life, but I did experience racial discrimination.” There were jokes, name-calling and even physical attacks. Once, after an opposing teammate threw racial slurs at him during a basketball game a fight broke out. His brother, who was in the stands, ended up in the hospital after defending him.

These experiences profoundly impacted Nieto and encouraged him to join the civil rights movement. He understood that there were completely different societies in America, and he vowed to be a part of creating positive change.

Founding the National Hispanic Institute

After SU, Nieto received his graduate degree at the University of Houston and worked in various management positions in both the state and federal government. His travels exposed him to poverty at many levels, and he saw how it affects people. Not only physically, but also socially, emotionally, and psychologically. When race becomes a factor it can trigger low levels of self esteem and affects all areas of a person’s life.

Nieto fought hard for what he believed, but admits it was emotionally exhausting and draining. “So many Latinos that went through the turmoil of the late 60s got burnt out” he explains. “People wanted to fight, but over time it takes an emotional toll.” What was missing was sustainability.

He realized that the Latino community needed a means of supplying future leaders - a sustainable means of fostering the leadership mindset.

It was with this objective in mind that he started the NHI in 1979, with the goal of recruiting exceptionally bright Latino kids. “I wanted to impress the importance of having a voice in the community, and give them the courage to stand up and be part of the American experience.” NHI creates leadership experiences for thousands of high-achieving youth and their families to advance their quality of life and that of the Hispanic community. It encourages them to aspire upward and to share their skills and talents so they blossom.

He also wanted to make sure his vision did not come from government funding. It has been a challenge that has continued for almost 40 years, but he has “enjoyed every minute of it.”

Nieto’s philosophy is very investor driven. Wants to put in place an infrastructure that is sustainable. “It has taken years of seeding and cultivating, but the NHI is positioned to continue to change lives and foster leaders.” The NHI has “never been a story of anger or retribution. It’s an opportunity for us to reshape thinking and get kids to love their communities.”

Leaving a Legacy

The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) recently presented Nieto with the Allen P. Splete Award, a distinguished award presented in recognition of significant contributions to independent higher education.

What really drives him is seeing so many of the kids that were involved with the NHI back in the beginning that are now adults and active members - leaders, faculty, board members. “So many of them went on to great schools and remain faithful to their leadership.”

He believes strongly in the benefits of a liberal arts education. “In a world filled with so much controversy, it’s important to have the skills to break things down and analyze what caused them or what the conditions were around them.”

His dedication to community includes his relationship with his close-knit family. His wife Gloria de Leon “has been integral to my life and the work of NHI.” Their children grew up volunteering with the organization, and three of his children also attended Southwestern: Christopher Nieto ’97, Roy Nieto ’97, and Marc Nieto ’96. Their daughter Nicole graduated from Vassar and received a dual masters from U.T. and El Tech in Monterrey, Mexico, and is now the Executive Vice President of NHI. Ernesto and Gloria have nine grandchildren whom they adore, and continue to stress the same values to them. Nieto encourages them to get out and become involved in their community. He asks them the question, “what are you doing to change humanity?”

Which, after all, is a question we should all ask ourselves. And Nieto, who has already done so much to change humanity, specifically the Hispanic community, continues to positively impact lives daily.