Hispanic-Serving, Success-Affirming

Southwestern’s recent designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) was a significant achievement for a number of reasons. The University is the only top 100 liberal arts college in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and the only member of the Associated Colleges of the South to receive this coveted distinction. The recognition also arrived at a particularly opportune moment in history: In June, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Hispanics are officially the largest ethnic group in Texas, at 40.2% of the population.

“President Laura Skandera Trombley made earning this designation one of her priorities, and for good reason,” says Laura Senio Blair, assistant dean of strategic initiatives and professor of Spanish and Latin American and border studies. “It is a characteristic of our ever-growing commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging and an appropriate reflection of the changing world around us, in Texas and beyond.”

To qualify as an HSI, at least 25% of the student population must be Hispanic. At Southwestern, 28% of students identify as Hispanic or Latinx. As an HSI, Southwestern is now eligible for a number of new programs and opportunities, including significant federal funding for initiatives designed to support these students.

“It’s not just about the opportunities that it provides Hispanic students,” Senio Blair says. “Our HSI designation benefits all students through access to professional development, educational programming, internships, networking events, and other opportunities. There’s a long list of benefits for the entire campus community.”

Fostering Student Success

Amalia Merino joined Southwestern as Hispanic student success coordinator in June. In addition to supporting Southwestern’s efforts to maintain federal HSI status, Merino works to foster the success of first-generation and underrepresented students. In her first few months on the job, Merino coordinated a highly successful celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and established LatinXcel, a comprehensive program dedicated to supporting students of Hispanic and Latin American heritage in their academic, professional, and personal pursuits.

“My primary goal is to connect with students and establish a strong rapport. I not only organize workshops and other events geared toward promoting their success but also conduct extensive outreach to encourage one-on-one meetings with me,” says Merino. “During our one-on-one interactions, I prioritize getting to know students on a personal level and building a relationship with them so I can fully understand and support their needs. This enables me to share information about scholarships, internships, and other opportunities and make specific recommendations, such as visiting other offices on campus or attending office hours, with confidence, knowing they will agree because they understand that I genuinely care.”

Among the many opportunities Merino shares are those offered by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), which represents existing and emerging HSIs. HACU provides internships, scholarships, and educational opportunities for students, faculty, and staff at its member institutions. Seven Southwestern students attended the ¡Adelante! Leadership Institute, which was part of the HACU 37th Annual Conference in October. The program was designed to develop the career and leadership skills of students attending HACU-member institutions.

Students pause for a photo at the HACU Conference Students pause for a photo at the HACU Conference

“When I first read about the conference, I was overjoyed to have an opportunity to attend,” says kinesiology major Laura Carrasco Torres ’24. “Being a first-generation Latinx student, there have been challenges in navigating college and in figuring out what my next steps are. Leadership has not always come naturally to me, but I’ve been lucky enough to encounter leaders who look like me and share similar experiences, which has given me confidence that I can, too.”

“I am a political science and philosophy double major, and attending the conference bolstered my desire to pursue a career in public service to make a difference in my community and be an example for others like myself who wish to do the same,” says Fernando Cruz Rivera ’26. “My favorite part of the conference was being able to speak with representatives from organizations like the State Department, SEC, FBI, and CIA. Being exposed to a wide range of internship and graduate programs was incredibly motivating and alleviated a lot of the concerns I had when it came to my own professional journey.”

Building Relationships

Merino also attended the HACU conference, along with Senio Blair and Adrian D. Ramirez, director of the Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD). The three colleagues attended workshops on best practices at HSIs.

“It was very beneficial to see what is currently working for other institutions, especially those that are similar to Southwestern,” Merino says. “The conference provided a lot of networking opportunities and conversations where we discussed gaps and needs, bouncing around ideas and possible solutions. Importantly, these interactions enabled us to stay connected with many attendees and continue these conversations beyond the conference.”

“As a campus community, we are motivated to determine meaningful opportunities to steward our HSI designation and for interdepartmental collaboration,” says Ramirez, who co-chairs the HSI Task Force with Senio Blair. “Because HACU has a long-standing presence in this space, I was eager to go to the conference to benchmark and learn how other campuses are engaging in this type of value-building program.”

In addition to connecting with fellow HSIs, Southwestern is building relationships with the organizations that support them. President Trombley is a member of Excelencia in Education’s Presidents for Latino Student Success, a network of college and university presidents committed to providing learning environments where Hispanic students thrive. The University will explore new ways to help students further their professional development.

Expanding Educational Opportunities

One of the most significant benefits is the opportunity for Southwestern to apply for grant funding under Title V, Part A of the Higher Education Act through the Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (DHSI) Program. These grants, which provide up to $3 million over five years, support programs that expand educational opportunities for and improve the academic success of Hispanic students while more broadly allowing HSIs to enhance their course offerings, programs, and institutional stability.

“Though they all share a deep and abiding commitment to the success of students from historically underrepresented groups, part of what’s great about the program is that each HSI is different,” Senio Blair says. “The Department of Education recognizes that Title V funding for a large urban institution in New York City is going to be completely different from that for a small liberal arts institution in Central Texas. This inherent flexibility will allow Southwestern to make the most of its new designation.”

Applications for the next grant cycle are expected to open this spring, and the University is preparing accordingly. Last fall, Southwestern convened an HSI Task Force. The 13-member group, which is made up of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, met six times over the course of the semester to identify six to eight possible initiatives, which will, in turn, be whittled down to three or four mutually reinforcing programs. Southwestern is eligible to apply for other grant opportunities as an HSI. The National Science Foundation offers specific grants to HSIs, for example, as does the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Enhancing the Educational Experience

Southwestern also was named a Fulbright Hispanic-Serving Institution Leader in 2023 by the U.S. Department of State. This designation recognizes the strong engagement of select HSIs with the Fulbright Program, the U.S. government’s flagship international academic exchange program. In the last 15 years, 16 Southwestern students have received the prestigious award. Southwestern was one of 46 HSIs, including just three baccalaureate institutions, honored.

“Our campus community works really hard at encouraging our students and faculty to apply for Fulbright programs,” Senio Blair says. “Fulbright is a phenomenal experience.”

Senio Blair notes that earning HSI designation was a key step as Southwestern continues to find new ways to enhance the educational experience of students. “This is a campus-wide endeavor that stretches well beyond our administrative offices,” she says. “It is far-reaching and intentional, and it’s a critical piece to writing the next chapter in our journey as an institution of higher learning.”

New DIBE Leadership

In alignment with its HSI designation, Southwestern University has appointed Dr. David A. Ortiz, Ph.D., as the inaugural Vice President for Equity, Accountability, and Inclusive Excellence. With over 30 years of experience in higher education, Ortiz is a renowned advocate for diversity and inclusion. He is set to play a pivotal role in advancing our HSI initiatives and maintaining our commitment to student success and retention.

To learn more about the work of the HSI Task Force and the resources available to students, faculty, and staff, go to southwestern.edu/hsi.