UArizona receives $3M for retention and career prep programs for Hispanic students

a group of people walking down the street toward a setting sun

Students in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese's Critical Service-Learning Program participated in a three-day delegation with BorderLinks, an educational network in Tucson, to learn about the complex issues surrounding immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. The program, which started in 2014, connects students with local organizations for community-based projects, outreach and internships. The program will be expanded campuswide as one component of the new Project ADELANTE.

Julius Scholosburg

The University of Arizona will receive $3 million for a new project aimed at strengthening retention, degree completion, career readiness and post-graduation success for Hispanic first-generation and low-income students.

Project ADELANTE: Advancing Culturally Responsive Place-Based Educational Opportunities for Latinx Students in the Borderlands includes three components – an internship and career readiness program to connect undergraduates with community businesses and nonprofits, professional development fellowships for UArizona faculty and staff, and a first-year writing program curriculum based on the Latin American "testimonio" tradition of personal narratives.

The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education's Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. The competitive grants are designed to assist Hispanic-Serving Institutions in expanding educational opportunities for Hispanic students. The university was designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution in 2018. The designation requires that a higher education institution's full-time undergraduate student enrollment is at least 25% Hispanic.  

The $3 million grant will support Project ADELANTE for five years. By the end of the grant period, it's estimated that the project's activities will have benefited more than 1,800 students.

"Aligned with HSI initiatives, this project embraces our proximity to the borderlands to offer an intentional suite of culturally responsive, place-based educational activities led by incredibly accomplished and equity-minded faculty and staff," said Marla Franco, UArizona vice president for Hispanic-Serving Institution initiatives. "I could not be more excited for this team to lead this important capacity-building work."

As of fall 2021, about 27.4% of UArizona students identified as Hispanic or Latinx, the gender-neutral term for those of Latin American descent. Among those students, 40.6% were first-generation college students and 78% were Arizona residents, many of whom were raised in Southern Arizona communities. Project ADELANTE seeks to build on UArizona's strengths as a land-grant HSI near the U.S.-Mexico border and provide Latinx students with classes and internship opportunities that fit into their cultural context.  

"The University of Arizona's designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution comes with additional responsibilities as well as new opportunities to make sure we are doing everything we can to make a difference for our students," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "It's encouraging to see faculty from across the campus collaborating on new programs that seek to connect culturally with students and ensure they have the tools they need for successful and fulfilling lives after they graduate."

After UArizona was designated a Hispanic- Serving Institution in 2018, a series of forums was held with members of the campus and the broader community, who identified a primary institutional need: to create more culturally responsive educational experiences.

In 2020-21, faculty members Lysette Davi, assistant director of student engagement for the W.A. Franke Honors College, and Daniel Martinez, assistant professor of sociology, were selected as UArizona HSI Fellows, joining a community-building, career development and leadership program. Davi and Martinez prepared a report exploring the use of binational collaborations to provide meaningful research and service experiences for students.

They found that despite the dozens of campus entities and nearly 100 employees engaging in collaborative work on the U.S-Mexico border, there was a lack of unity in the efforts, as well as a lack of clarity regarding who could help facilitate binational collaboration in teaching, research and service.

In response, Franco sought project proposals from dozens of faculty members, staff members and campus leaders engaged in work in the borderlands. Their ideas were compiled into the grant application for Project ADELANTE. The project name and acronym were chosen to reflect the meaning of the Spanish word "adelante," which means moving forward collectively.

Ana Cornide

Ana Cornide

"The project will provide students with a university experience that helps develop their identities as bilingual and bicultural civic-minded professionals," said Ana Cornide, project director and an associate professor of practice in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. "We see the University of Arizona's in-state Latinx students as bearers of critical knowledge, bringing with them an understanding of key issues affecting their families and communities. Institutionally, the project will build on this cultural and social capital and connect it to academic contexts."

Making an impact through internships, fellowships and coursework

Project ADELANTE's Borderlands Service-Learning Program is a campuswide expansion of the Critical Service-Learning Program that Cornide developed in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Since 2014, Cornide has established partnerships with more than 60 local and regional organizations and supervised more than 650 internships through the program. The program will now connect students from across the campus with internships.

"By connecting students with community organizations in the region, the project aims to create a sense of place and belonging for first-generation college students, thereby increasing retention and graduation rates," Cornide said.

Students will be recruited for the program in partnership with the HSI Initiatives office, and a new borderlands-focused career-readiness course will serve as a pre-internship requirement.

The "testimonio" component of Project ADELANTE will be introduced to students in their first-year writing courses. Melani Martinez, a senior lecturer in the Department of English's Writing Program, will lead that part of the project.

"Now, we're working toward having a Borderlands Writing Program course, so it's not just one assignment, but a full spectrum of things from the beginning of the course to the end," she said. "Testimonio is a Latinx tradition and a form of literature as witness. Testimonio is a very different kind of reflection. It brings in more opportunities to talk about student experiences regarding justice, student experiences regarding their cultural or ethnic heritage."

Reaching students in their first year is especially important, Martinez said.

"The first-year student is trying to figure out, 'Do I belong at this institution? Am I going to be able to stay at this institution? Will I be able to finish my degree?' That pressure to succeed doesn't always line up well with the resources they have to find their path," Martinez said. "This grant is a new way for students to find their way in the university and create their academic self and to help guide them from the very first semester."

Project ADELANTE's Borderlands Fellowship Program will support three annual cohorts of 10 faculty and staff members who regularly engage with Hispanic low-income and first-generation students.

The fellowships will include educational workshops and trainings, mentorships and experiential learning opportunities in the borderlands. Nadia Alvarez Mexia, an assistant professor of practice in the Honors College and director of Transborder Education Initiatives in the College of Education, and Iliana Reyes, associate dean in the College of Education, will collaborate on this project component.

"From our previous research and outreach at the Borderlands Education Center with undergraduate and graduate students, we know that they long for connections and contributions to our Hispanic and multicultural communities," Reyes said. 

"ADELANTE is creating and embracing academic spaces and institutional capacity based on professional development for faculty and staff," Alvarez Mexia said. "This professional development component will facilitate experiential learning opportunities to cultivate a borderlands identity and develop educational experiences for students in the University of Arizona."