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How Mentoring Strengthens Latino Communities and Classrooms

Statistics indicate that, of all student subgroups, Hispanic males are least likely to stay in school.

In 2009, more than 61 percent of all associate’s or bachelor’s degrees earned by Hispanics were earned by females, and the percentage of those who attained a bachelor’s degree doubled from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2010. That’s not the story for males, according to Victor Saenz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration. In fact, he said, many have described Hispanic males’ diminishing presence in the education system as a “crisis.”

At the College of Education, a network of dedicated researchers, mentors and students are working to fix that — and have been — for five years.

Victor Saenz

Victor B. Sáenz, Ph.D.

Their solution is called Project M.A.L.E.S. (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). The brainchild of Saenz and his colleagues Luis Ponjuan and William Serrata, Project M.A.L.E.S. is a research-informed network of undergraduate males who mentor Hispanic high school males, as well as graduate Hispanic males who mentor undergraduate males. The program promotes and shares research on the educational experiences of men of color. Research, including that of Saenz, shows that mentoring programs like this improve the odds that students will stay in the education pipeline.

“They just need information, emotional support and someone to guide them on what’s really a very complicated path. They need mentors,” said Saenz, who also founded The University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

And mentorship is exactly what Project M.A.L.E.S. provides.

“Latino males have many unique challenges when it comes to pursuing an education — in trying to fulfill what it means to be a ‘man’ in Latino culture, many of them quit school as soon as they’re able to work,” said Mike Gutierrez, the program’s mentoring coordinator and an adviser at Austin Community College. “If they don’t know what it takes to get in college, for example, they may be really hesitant to ask questions … These are cultural factors that not just everybody understands.”

This cultural influence is something Gutierrez understands first-hand. Growing up, he experienced a lot of the same things M.A.L.E.S mentees face, and was a mentor himself before becoming the mentor coordinator for the program.

Now, Gutierrez is working on his second master’s degree.

“I couldn’t have done it without a lot of great people who thought I was worth the trouble and worth helping,” he said.

This premise of having a supporter, encourager and mentor is what has made the greatest impact on the individuals involved, especially past mentors who share similar experiences with their mentees.

“When it comes to Dr. Saenz’s scholarship, I am the research. I’ve faced the challenges, and I can tell you from experience that the kind of work Project M.A.L.E.S does is desperately needed,” said Jorge Segovia, a former mentor and now the curriculum and community engagement coordinator for the program. “The current U.S. school system isn’t designed to support African American and Hispanic student success. To make it through, these groups need good mentors … Lots of caring people stepped in and helped me, and I feel a strong obligation to return the favor.”

That feeling of paying it forward has paid off. In the past five years, Project M.A.L.E.S. has gained national attention and multiple invitations to Saenz from the White House, as well as several state and local honors.

Luis Urrieta

Luis Urrieta, Jr., Ph.D.

This year, the program obtained approval for a service-learning course through the College of Liberal Arts that anchors undergraduate mentors’ training in a formal academic class. The new course, titled “Instructing Males Through Peer Advising College Tracks,” launched this past fall. It gives students an opportunity to learn about public service, and to work with Central Texas community leaders. Students also receive mentor training, explore literature on the unique challenges that men of color face, and put their mentoring skills to the test in Austin area schools.

“We were the first and are the most prominent university-based, research-informed program that focuses on the mentoring and study of Latino males,” said Saenz, “and we take that responsibility very seriously. Mentoring is in our organization’s name and it’s what we’re about.”

Like Saenz, College of Education Associate Professor Luis Urrieta is also passionate about using mentoring to help Latino youth. His focus is on teaching young Latinos about the benefits of their social and cultural knowledge, and how it can be the key to their success.

“In the U.S. education system, we too often dismiss the fact that learning includes all of a child’s environments and multiple ways of knowing and being, not just the structured, limited activities that occur in a classroom,” said Urrieta, himself the son of Mexican immigrants from rural Michoacán. “I want to transform current education practices by figuring out how these cultural practices and traditions can complement formal Western education.”

The program, called Cultura en Acción, was created in Austin two years ago. UT student volunteers spend one afternoon each week with third, fourth and fifth graders at Austin area schools.

For a lot of the mentors, the experience becomes more than just a volunteer opportunity, with the benefits of the program expanding beyond Austin. Urrieta captured national attention for his work by receiving a Cesar E. Chavez Champions of Change award from the White House last year.

“Dr. Urrieta really stresses that you’re not there to fulfill an obligation or gain an experience that you can just put on your resume,” said Ana Isabel Fernandez De Alb, a former mentor in the program and a graduate student in Mexican American Studies. “As a mentor, you develop rapport with the children that allows them to talk freely about crossing the border and visiting their families in Mexico, for example, and that’s something that they may not share with almost anyone else.”

For both Project M.A.L.E.S. and Cultura en Acción, students, researchers, faculty members and volunteers at the College of Education are dedicated to making a difference – one mentoring relationship at a time.

Credit: Kay Randall for research and collaboration on this article.