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HSI: An opportunity to serve students from diverse backgrounds

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Illustration of Marla Franco.

To Marla Franco, one of the main advocates for the University of Arizona obtaining the official title of Hispanic Serving Institution, the HSI title was not just a designation but an opportunity to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

Franco "led the effort beginning in the 2015 academic year to move the UA from an Emerging Hispanic-Serving Institution to full eligibility," according to UA News. April 5 marked the two-year anniversary of the University of Arizona’s Hispanic Serving Institution designation. 

Franco’s expertise was specifically within the sphere of higher education, and Franco’s 20-year career has taken place at public four-year universities exclusively.

Franco’s role as assistant vice provost for Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives and faculty affiliate for Center for the Study of Higher Education was complex and continuous, according to Franco. 

"My role in this is really to provide institutional leadership, vision and, more so, accountability for ensuring that our commitment [as an HSI] is present in very real ways at the university," Franco said.   

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The UA’s HSI designation intended to serve and support students from diverse backgrounds in addition to Hispanic and Latinx students within the UA community. HSI initiatives, such as the HSI Fellows Program, were embedded within multiple facets and across programs to ensure institutional success. 

A Hispanic Serving Institution by definition is an institution that meets specific annual criteria determined by the U.S. Department of Education as, “an eligible [higher education] institution; and has an enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25 percent Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of application,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website

As of 2018-19, UA's the total Hispanic enrollment was 26.3% and joined the fourteen other HSIs in Arizona. There were 539 HSIs across the country and 352 emerging HSI's as of 2018-19, according to the Excelencia in Education website

Since its short existence, UA's HSI initiative has been awarded a National Science Foundation HSI Conference Grant on research and the 2019 Seal of Excelencia. The HSI Initiative has also hosted various events including the HACU's Ascending Leaders Forum and a STEM Equity Townhall at minority serving institutions.   

However, for Franco, progress was the hallmark of true success because that was where it counted most. 

“[While HSI and its initiatives] are still in an ‘infancy’ stage, there is some great work to account for these efforts,” Franco said.

The designation itself did not automatically grant the university additional financial resources, however, HSI’s are eligible for federal and foundation grants that were created to support furthering the HSI mission, according to the Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives page

In November of 2018, following the UA’s HSI designation, President Dr. Robert C. Robbins announced the Strategic Plan as a way to program the future of the university outlined by a five-pillar system to be accomplished by 2025.

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The five pillars were: Wildcat Journey, Grand Challenges, Arizona Advantage, Arizona Global and Institutional Excellence, according to the UA website

The HSI initiative falls within the third pillar or pillar 3.1B, also known as Arizona Advantage as a way to, “[create] well-informed strategies that support the conditions necessary for greater access and rates of degree attainment for Hispanic learners, supporting greater rates of retention and promotion for diverse faculty focused on research and scholarships centered on issues relevant to the Hispanic community as well as increasing community based participatory action research and scholarship with the Hispanic community,” according to according to the UA website.  

HSI fellows were part of the effort in better serving the UA's Hispanic learners through "[furthering] the scope and depth of work around our HSI designation and [providing] a venue for community-building and career development for faculty and staff through a project-based leadership experience, mentoring and coaching, and a series of targeted workshops," according to the UA website.

Karina Rodriguez, one of the newest HSI fellows for the 2020-21 academic year is a recruitment coordinator within the College of Humanities and an alumna of the UA . 

According to Rodriguez, the HSI initiative is present on the UA campus in a way that fulfills its mission of inclusivity to the utmost degree.  

“There are a lot of different pockets of support especially for students, staff, faculty of color who are perhaps first generation college students [that the HSI aims to support through its existence],” Rodriguez said.

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Vanessa Perry is an assistant professor of practice for disability psychoeducational studies and was part of the inaugural cohort of HSI fellows.

To Perry, the HSI Fellows Program has provided an indispensable opportunity to all fellows who have had the opportunity to participate. 

“[I think that] that the University of Arizona is at a pivotal point in its history. There are so many people who are very strongly in support of our diverse students, faculty and staff, sometimes they are not the first person that you see," Perry said. "Sometimes it takes a little bit of digging, but don't be discouraged because once you find your community, it really feels like you've come home."

Franco is hopeful for a brighter and more diverse future at the UA. 

“In terms of the future of this work and the hopes for it, [I believe] it is centered in continued effort…[There is a lot] of hope and aspiration in finding new ways to strategically embed the value for this work in different areas across campus as opposed to an add on or an afterthought," Franco said. "I can't help but feel committed and passionate about helping them [Students] see through on their own goals for themselves. [That] is what the HSI designation is all about."


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