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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.

October 10, 2014

President Obama and Victor Saenz

President Obama and Victor Saenz

College of Education associate professor Victor Saenz, who is founder and executive director of Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, recently was in Washington, D.C. to discuss education issues and represent UT Austin at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration.

Saenz was among a group of prominent national, state, and local Hispanic educators and community leaders invited to the event at the Naval Observatory. Guests included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, and voter advocate Henry Munoz, and the evening culminated with a surprise visit from President Obama.

At the event, Vice President Joe Biden lauded Hispanic education administrators and counselors, calling them “heroes in the classroom” and commending the “brilliance and potential of the Hispanic community.”

While in Washington, Saenz and Luis Ponjuan, a Texas A&M University faculty member and partner in the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, had an opportunity to meet with colleagues at The Education Trust, Excelencia in Education, and the American Council on Education, as well as with Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, and others on Capitol Hill, to discuss Project MALES and the Consortium’s work in Texas.

In addition to being a faculty member in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, Saenz is affiliated with UT Austin’s Division for Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), which supports his work to improve academic outcomes for young men of color.

Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) is based in the DDCE and is a multi-faceted research and mentoring initiative whose goal is to raise awareness about the rapid rate at which Hispanic males are disappearing from the U.S. education system. The Education Consortium is also headquartered in the DDCE, and is a statewide collaboration that focuses on improving young Hispanic and African American males’ education and career success. The Consortium, which includes members from Texas universities and representatives from two Texas school districts, is coordinating the efforts of existing programs that target under-represented male students across the education continuum.


October 15, 2014

Natalie Poulos, a doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education’s Health Behavior and Health Education program, was among 15 graduate students awarded a Harrington Fellowship earlier this month. The most prestigious fellowship program at UT Austin, the Donald D. Harrington Fellows Program supports young faculty members and graduate students who have stellar academic records and a broad range of distinctive achievements.

Poulos, whose research focuses on dietary patterns and outcomes in youth, will receive a one-year stipend, tuition, an allowance for student medical insurance, and a fund for miscellaneous expenses.

Poulos received her bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and master’s degree in Health Education from UT Austin, where she also completed the Coordinated Program in Dietetics to become a registered dietitian. While working in the Prevention Research Lab, Natalie has served as project director on the Outdoor MEDIA project, a study that measured and evaluated the influence of outdoor food and beverage advertising. In the future, she hopes to work with a food-based non-profit that brings local food to underserved communities, as well as teach university-level behavioral nutrition courses.

Victor Saenz

Victor Saenz

Two University of Texas at Austin College of Education research groups have been included in a response to a task force report on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a project established by President Obama. My Brother’s Keeper has a goal of bringing together private sector and philanthropic organizations to improve life outcomes for boys and young men of color.

The response addresses a recently-released task force report Get Adobe Reader about the initiative and is a joint effort of seven university-based research centers:

  • Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color (UT Austin)
  • The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Minority Male Community College Collaboration (San Diego State University)
  • Morehouse Research Institute (Morehouse College)
  • Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male (The Ohio State University)
  • UCLA Black Male Institute (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The centers focus on the study of factors that help and limit educational, social, and occupational opportunities for boys and young men of color.

Dr. Victor Saenz, an associate professor in the UT Austin College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, is co-founder and executive director of Project MALES as well as the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

Below is the task force report that was issued:

As Black and Latino male professors and research center directors, we salute President Obama as well as the many philanthropic and private sector funders for their commitment to improving the conditions of our nation’s boys and young men of color.

The task force report offers a commendable articulation of challenges and opportunities for young men of color and various agents who play some role in their life outcomes. Recommendations offered therein are appropriately informed by research from a range of academic disciplines.

As our nation prepares to enact recommendations from the task force, we call for programs, policies, and services that are guided by research and documented effectiveness. We caution, for example, against the widespread replication of mentoring programs that haphazardly match young men with adults, as evidence concerning the outcomes of such programs is mixed. Moreover, we believe interventions should focus on better understanding and remedying systemic inequities in policies, schooling and social practices, and structures that persistently undermine the success of boys and men of color. More significant investment in the dissemination of existing research on what works, as well as funding new studies on promising policies and practices, would help ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper and the Americans it aims to effectively serve.

We urge private foundations, federal funding agencies (i.e., the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health), and other entities that invest in projects associated with My Brother’s Keeper to take seriously the evidence base of initiatives that are proposed, as well as rigorous evaluations of newly funded projects. Funds are needed to facilitate productive collaborations among research centers such as ours, and to connect researchers with agents who lead organizations and initiatives for young men of color across our nation. The success of My Brother’s Keeper depends heavily on the quality of research produced about its effectiveness. Ultimately, strong cultures of evidence and efficacy should guide all programs, services, and interventions associated with the initiative.

My Brother’s Keeper affords our country an important opportunity to reframe hopeless, deficit-oriented narratives about boys and young men of color, schools that educate them, and communities in which they live. We are hopeful that the initiative will produce replicable models of success, but doing so requires more investment in studies of what works. To ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper, our research centers stand ready to serve as resources to its funders and the Obama Administration.