Feature: Soaring High As a HSI:

Initiatives funded by CI's status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution support a growing body of underrepresented students who will soon become a dominant national workforce.

To understand what it can mean to attend a Hispanic-Serving Institution, one need look no further than the story of Katia Garcia Nava.

The daughter of migrant farmworkers, Nava spent her youth moving from school to school and working in the fields to support her family. Her attempts to attend college were repeatedly sidelined by financial and academic obstacles.

Nava's outlook brightened the day she enrolled at CI, where she found unprecedented support in programs designed specifically for students like her. After earning her bachelor's degree in chemistry last year at age 37, Nava is on the path to a Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. Her goal is to become a professor and encourage the next generations of underrepresented groups in science.

"Without the support I received at CI from programs like Project ACCESO, I probably would have dropped out," she said. "The mentorship was vital and the research opportunities enabled me to work and pay for my education while also building my resume." Abriana Diaz mentors first-year students as a University Experience Associate for Project ISLAS, an HSI initiative.

With the help of more than $16.4 million in federal funding, CI is working with students, educators and regional partners to create more success stories like Nava's. One of the 12 percent of institutions nationwide classified a "Hispanic-Serving Institution" (HSI) -- a term used by the federal government to describe colleges that are more than 25 percent Hispanic and that serve a significant number of low-income students -- CI is able to compete for coveted federal grants that strengthen and build institutional capacity to better serve low-income, underrepresented and predominantly Hispanic students.

That's a group that's vital to California's -- and the nation's -- future. According to the Census Bureau, minorities will compose 57 percent of the U.S. population by 2060, with one in every three residents being Hispanic.

Hispanic students are the nation's fastest-growing college population, producing a 240 percent increase in enrollment over the last decade. In 2012, 49 percent of Hispanic high school graduates enrolled at a postsecondary public institution, surpassing white student enrollment for the first time. With one-fourth of all U.S. public school students identified as Hispanic, that trend is expected to grow.

However, Hispanics still lag behind other groups in completing college. In 2012, fewer than 15 percent of Hispanics ages 25 and older had earned a bachelor's degree.

Without the support I received at CI from programs like Project ACCESSO, I probably would have dropped out. -- Katie Garcia Nava

CI is working hard to buck that trend, with targeted academic programs and a university culture focused on helping all students thrive. Its seven federal Title V HSI initiatives target students in grade school through graduate study, educators in middle school through college, and parents and community members throughout Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

"Our goal is to reach out to learners of all ages and all walks of life -- as well as to their families, instructors, schools and colleges -- so we can work together to help the kids in our community get into college, graduate, and become strong contributors to our region and nation," said Amanda Quintero, Ph.D., Director of Hispanic- Serving Institution Initiatives at CI.

Kaia Tollefson, Ph.D., Director of Project Vista, which encourages students to pursue graduate and postbaccalaureate degrees, has also seen dramatic results. Since 2011, there's been an 18 percent growth in overall postbaccalaureate enrollment. Credential and graduate students who identify themselves as Hispanic increased 400 percent, and students declining to state their ethnicity declined 60 percent.

"The numbers reflect increased postbaccalaurate enrollment and pride of identity," Tollefson said. "For many families, the post high school conversation has been focused on just going to college. Project Vista has expanded the conversation so we can talk to students about the trajectory of going to graduate school and the kinds of opportunities it brings -- for students and our region."

Phil Hampton, Ph.D., Director of Project ACCESO, which aims to boost the number of students pursuing and graduating from STEM-related disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), reports similar signs of success. From 2011 through 2013, the number of STEM majors at CI increased 37 percent, and Hispanic STEM majors increased 72 percent.

Hampton also points to benchmarks like 4,500 hours of student STEM tutoring last year and the Science Carnival, which drew more than 3,000 young children and their parents to a fun, free night of science activities.

"One of the great gifts of these initiatives is that they benefit everyone," said Cindy Wyels, Ph.D., Project ACCESO's Co-Director of Student Success. "They're geared toward people who need those financial resources most, but they're open to their classmates and community. Everyone wins."

That success is helping CI emerge as a leader among HSIs. This year, Quintero was elected President of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institution Educators (AHSIE), the national organization dedicated to sharing best practices of HSIs. The group selected CI as the host campus for its 2017 national conference. Earlier this year, CI was named a "Top College for Hispanic Students" by BestColleges.com, which ranked it 19th in the nation for enrolling, supporting and graduating Hispanic students. And President Richard Rush was invited to be an expert panelist at both the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities' 2014 national conference and ASHIE's 2015 Best Practices Conference.

While the recognition is rewarding, Quintero and other HSI project directors say their focus is on maintaining, improving, expanding and sharing CI's most effective practices.

"We can't leverage federal funding forever, so we have an institutional responsibility to make sure the initiatives we've put in place are always there for our students," Quintero said. "We have an opportunity now to pay it forward and share our successes and innovations in the national forum."

By Marya Jones Barlow

Find out more about Project ACCESO here, Project VISTA here.

Video About Project ACCESO

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