• Donald Tetto

Southwestern University has received $263,318 in government funds that will be used to launch a new Center for Hispanic Studies.

The center will be run in partnership with the National Hispanic Institute, which is based in Maxwell, Texas. Southwestern graduate Ernesto Nieto is the director of that institute, which has conducted leadership programs for Hispanic youth nationwide since 1979. Its programs include the Young Leaders Conference for 9th graders, the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session for 10th graders, and the Collegiate World Series for 11th graders.

One of the goals of the new center will be to conduct research on the effectiveness of programs that are designed to prepare Hispanic youth for college, including those run by NHI.

“This grant will open doors to conducting much-needed research on the impact of community intervention strategies such as those offered by NHI,” Nieto says.

Research on the effectiveness of such programs is important because of the growing Hispanic population in Texas and nationwide. Between 2000 and 2040, Texas’ population is expected to grow from 20 million to 50 million, with 96 percent of the net increase coming from non-Anglo residents. Unless this segment of the population is encouraged to attend college, the proportion of educated citizens will fall dramatically, which could have serious economic and social consequences.

Staff members from NHI will conduct the research, as well as faculty members from Southwestern and other institutions. The findings will be made available to educators and policymakers nationwide.

Southwestern and the National Hispanic Institute began working on plans for center in 2004, when the NHI was celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“We wanted a way to do research on the students who have come through our program in the past 25 years,” Nieto said. More than 65,000 students have participated in NHI programs, and these students have a remarkable track record with respect to college enrollment. More than 98 percent attend college, with 90 percent graduating in four to five years, and 65 percent continuing into graduate studies.

The funds for the center came in the form of an appropriation sponsored by Rep. John R. Carter, who represents Texas’ 31st Congressional District, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Other members of the Texas congressional delegation also supported the project, which was included in the 2008 Omnibus spending bill approved at the end of 2007.

Ron Swain, senior advisor to the president for strategic planning and assessment, noted that creation of the new center fits in with one of the goals of Southwestern’s Strategic Plan for 2010, which calls for the creation of new institutes and centers. The Center for Hispanic Studies is the first center the university has received funding for.

Southwestern is a good site for the new center because it has one of the highest percentages of Hispanic students of any liberal arts college in the country. The university has offered a major in Latin American Studies since 2005 and hosts a yearly student-led Latino Heritage Symposium.

Southwestern also is a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) and the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE). TACHE has been working closely with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on its “Closing the Gaps” program, which is designed to increase the percentage of students – particularly minority students – who enroll in institutions of higher education.

Southwestern Provost Jim Hunt said the university is excited about the potential for doing research on college-bound Hispanic students, and in working to attract more Hispanic students to higher education.

“Given our location, Hispanic students will continue to be a large part of our population,” Hunt said. “We need to understand the issues related to these students.”

Hunt noted that even within the Hispanic community, there are many different populations that need to be studied. “It is not a monolithic community,” he said.

Southwestern will submit a formal proposal for the center to the Department of Education later this spring.